“We are awaiting cabinet nod for financing smart grid pilots”

In conversation, Dr Sam Pitroda, chairman, India Smart Grid Task Force


Samir Sachdeva | July 3, 2012

Satyanarayan (‘Sam’) Gangaram Pitroda wears many hats: he is currently advisor to the prime minister on public information infrastructure and innovations (PIII) and chairman of the national innovation council. He has served as chairman of the national knowledge commission. He is also the founder of C-SAM, Inc. Among other things, he is also chairman of the India smart grid task force (ISGTF) which was established in May 2010 to act as a government focal point for activities related to smart grids. Pitroda spoke to Samir Sachdeva on what the task force is up to and what is its vision of smart grids in India. Edited excerpts: 

Smart grid is often viewed as an answer to the power problems of India. Do you believe that implementation of smart grid will solve all power woes?
India’s power challenges are widespread and complex. There may not be a single solution that can resolve all of them simultaneously.  However, smart grids – designed for Indian requirements rather than following western models – bring tools to resolve what we believe are some of India’s more pressing power problems: losses, supply reliability and quality.

Approximately 30% of our power vanishes through aggregate technical and commercial (AT&C) losses. These losses in India are of a magnitude higher than that of many developed nations.

Smart grid technologies help us address this in a number of ways. Take for example advanced metering infrastructure (AMI). We can use AMI to locate major sources of power theft, leading to administrative action. We can also use AMI to help citizens make wiser choices about how they use power – how much, for what purpose, at what time – helping ensure that everyone gets a reasonable power supply within a reasonable budget. We can use grid automation technologies to help power grids heal themselves, in case of outages – allowing utilities to restore supply to citizens much faster. We can use remote terminal units to help maintain standards in power quality.

While these may not resolve India’s power woes completely, smart grids can try and help engage some of the more pressing issues.
What are the key recommendations of the smart grid task force?
We have set up working groups to look at different aspects of Indian smart grids – trials, loss reduction and theft, power to rural areas and quality of power to urban areas, distributed generation and renewable energy, cyber-security, and standards. After deliberations, we made seven recommendations last year.

The first is to have eight different pilots to be taken up within next 18 months to establish a knowledge base and develop proofs of concept in various categories in all parts of the country. Second is to develop low-cost smart meters to ensure that 100% metering is achieved within the distribution company’s resources. Thirdly, smart grid standards to be established/adopted by the bureau of Indian standards (BIS). Other recommendations include having supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) and metering intervention in more towns under restructured accelerated power development and reform programme (R-APDRP). We have also recommended identifying critical cyber security assets and to have audit on regular basis. Other recommendations include engaging regulators to introduce time-of-day tariffs and feed-in tariffs to entice consumer participation in demand management.

Lastly, we have suggested a smart transmission grid through the wide area measurement systems (WAMS) project with phasor measurement unit (PMU) deployment to be achieved by power grid all over Indian extra high voltage system.

Of these, we have tended to prioritise the pilots and the smart meter. We’re pushing ahead in these two areas in parallel. While it is taking some time, the outputs of these two lines of effort will together give us the basis of a real framework for driving smart grids in India, customised to Indian needs.

How ready is India’s power infrastructure to adopt smart grids?
We have the APDRP in India, focused on bringing information and communications technology (ICT) to the power sector. It has a large footprint, covering more than 1,400 significant urban areas in all states, accounting for 30% of the total energy demand. It also involves a range of key ICT for energy audit and accounting: automatic meter reading for high-tension carriers and distribution transformers, meter data acquisition (MDA) systems, modems, software modules (17 of them), disaster recovery centres and so on. Every state will have a data recovery centre as well as combinations of these audit and accounting technologies.

This combination of spread and the presence of key technologies give us a well-distributed, nationwide network of building blocks, on which we can situate smart grid systems. By introducing new technologies and standards and enhancing existing ones within this network, we can drive the emergence of Indian smart grids from the existing infrastructure.
You have suggested the development of low-cost smart meters. What will be the key features of these meters?
We had prioritised a few key features for the smart meter. We wanted it to be semiconductor-based, have bi-directional wireless communication and be inexpensive. We set the target at $20, that is, around '1,000, after mass production. Beyond this, we also examined other features such as connect/disconnect features (which would be used subject to regulatory approval). The task force formed a sub-committee to look into smart meter specifications, which has just submitted its report and recommendations.
Why was the smart grid forum created? What are its achievements so far?
The Indian Smart Grid Forum (ISGF) was set up to provide a mechanism through which academia, industry, utilities and other stakeholders could participate in the development of Indian smart grid systems and provide relevant inputs to the government’s decision-making. While it was kick-started by the government, its members come from a range of backgrounds. We are told that they are making good progress, after the election of leadership late last year. They have formed working groups examining different aspects of smart grids, which are connecting and aligning with the task force’s own working groups. They have offered suggestions and inputs on the proposed pilots. ISGF is also working with the task force on developing a new smart grid portal.
One of the tasks before ISGTF was to evolve standards for smart grid development and implementation. What is the status of the same?
We have a number of key domain organisations on the ISGTF, such as BIS and the central electricity authority (CEA). A working group was set up by the task force to come out with standards.  The group, as part of its work, is closely examining IEC’s and NIST’s work on evolving standards in Europe and the US. India is also a founding member of the International Smart Grid Action Network, giving us another forum where we can engage with the rest of the world and stay abreast of developments in this area.

What is the status of pilot projects for smart grid? Which states have come forward for these pilots?
We received a number of proposals from various state utilities. The proposals were evaluated by a committee, of which 14 were finally selected – from all regions of the country. Selection was based on a number of criteria including technical capacity, geographical spread and scale-up capability. While we had initially considered funding eight pilots, we decided to expand the scope of this effort to 14, to more robustly reflect the wide range of geographies and operating conditions that India possesses. The government of India plans to provide funds up to '200 crore from the R-APDRP’s innovation budget line. This funding will be complemented by matching funds from the states. We are now awaiting the cabinet approval for financing, after which we can proceed with announcing allocations.
What kind of technologies will these pilots focus on?
Each pilot will trial a different combination of seven technologies. These include AMI for residential applications, AMI for industrial applications, outage management, peak load management, power quality, micro grid and distributed generation.

When can we expect the framework on smart grids as proposed by ISGTF?
We want to ensure that the frameworks for smart grids emerge from a sound body of evidence and experience – making them workable and practical. Accordingly, we’re expecting much of this to emerge from two parallel efforts. The pilot programme, which we hope will generate results in 18-24 months; and the smart meters effort, where the ministry of power (MoP) and the department of electronics and information technology (DeitY) are collaborating to examine the possibility of an 18-month research and development (R&D) programme focused on developing the technologies needed. Together, these efforts over the 18-24 months’ timeframe will give us a basis for the smart grid frameworks that we’re seeking to develop.

Do we need a separate smart grid policy or should it be part of an overall energy policy?
We expect that smart grids will be a significant component of any energy policy. While smart grids are simply collections of tools, they are intimately linked to wider and key energy policy imperatives like access to all, affordable supplies of power, decentralised distribution and leveraging local renewable sources. These are not areas that can be viewed in isolation. So the possibility of a separate smart grid policy is unclear. However, it will be difficult to address these areas without using smart grid technologies, underscoring their centrality to any comprehensive energy policy.

How will a consumer benefit from the introduction of smart grids?
Smart grids will address consumer needs in many ways. Firstly it will widen choices for a consumer through usage management systems. These will allow customers to find out which applications in their houses are using the most power (and are therefore the most expensive) and turn them off, or manage their usage. Secondly, it will ensure power availability and reliability through outage management systems. These will help identify faults in power supply, for rapid redressal. Better demand management will allow wider access to power. While it may be difficult to guarantee perfect power availability, in the current context, we can at least replace black-outs with brown-outs by providing a basic threshold of power to all households, with which they can run at least a few key appliances. It will also improve power quality through a combination of key technologies – such as remote terminal units to monitor distribution grids, analytics and asset mapping, load balancing and SCADA.

What about the cyber security concerns in implementing smart grids?
Cyber security will be a vital part of any smart grid development agenda, which is why the task force has a working group dedicated to examining these issues. DeitY is doing a great deal of work in this area, which will help drive efforts to protect smart grid networks from cyber attacks.

What, according to you, should be the road ahead for smart grids in India?
Going ahead we need to carry on the ongoing programme, over the next several years, of continuous introduction and upgradation of ICT for the grids, making them more responsive and flexible.  We need to build sound, evidence-based smart grid frameworks based on information that will be generated by the ISGTF pilots.

We also need to develop a new Indian smart grid model – focused on addressing power loss and reliability – which can generate opportunities for Indian technology providers, and provide a model for emulation across the developing world. Another focus has to be on development of India-specific technologies, such as low-cost ‘dumb’ smart meters. We also need to increase the spread of ICT and, therefore, smart grid capacity from major urban centres to semi-urban and underserved areas where smart grids can help in distributed power management and sourcing. 



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