Breaking the gridlock

Smart grid technology solutions can help India not only reduce its T&D losses but also leap to the future by bundling major public utilities over one single grid

r-swaminathan

R Swaminathan | July 26, 2012



The human body is a maddeningly complex system that rarely reveals its inner workings to the outside world. Consider this. The average human being is exposed to a billion different kinds of bacteria, viruses and micro-organisms on a daily basis. Each of these invisible creatures can cause anything from a feeling of feverishness to a fatal brain haemorrhage. Yet most of us keep going on about our daily lives without feeling the constant war being fought inside our bodies. Our brain monitors our vital parameters, often pumping up one system to compensate for another that’s underperforming, keep our temperatures constant and allows us to take those split-second intuitive decisions that define the very essence of humanness. Possibly the only time we become consciously aware of our body’s inner workings is when one of those tiny creatures overwhelm our system. We then call in sick, go to a doctor, pop medicines and are up and running as soon as the system gets back on its feet. When we invented the term smart, the human being was already a smart self-correcting system for close to 2,00,000 years. Dig deep and one would probably find this ability of the human body as the conceptual root of any smart and self-correcting system.

Smart grid seeks to mimic the nature’s ability to create autonomous yet interlinked bio-systems capable of sustaining a certain equilibrium and balance through a maze of checks and balances.

The concept of smart grid has traditionally been associated with electricity networks. There is a historical reason. Electricity was among the first public utilities, telephone being the other, to use an ever-expanding grid of transmission towers and high energy lines to reach homes. Over time, more than any other public utility, electricity became important; an integral part of life so much so that life could not imagined without it. Grids, then, by default came to be identified with electricity. As a logical extension, so did smart grids.

Grid was a product of the thinking of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The idea was simple. It was a one-way delivery mechanism that would reliably carry electricity to different parts of a country with minimal transmission and distribution loss.

There was no provision in the grid to detect load factors to calibrate the flow of electricity to different corners of a country, nor was the grid primed to actively anticipate peak load requirements.

In short, the grid was not self-correcting and smart. To be fair, the technology of that era could not have supported the thinking of a communicating, self-correcting grid. There are certain specific characteristics that define a smart grid.

The first is the use of a suite of inter-connected digital technologies for improving information processing and communication within a power grid. The second is the presence of a centralised information management centre that has the ability to analyse real-time data. The third is the presence of interlinked sensors that flag off problems in the system allowing the centralised information management centre to either automatically or manually to take remedial measures.

The move towards a smart grid was primarily due to two inter-related reasons. The first was economic. Setting up and running an electricity utility is a capital intensive operation. It’s one of the most asset intensive industries in the world with everything from the plant, transmission towers and power lines becoming depreciating assets the moment they are put up on the ground. In such a scenario, the utility companies had to constantly look for new ways to improve efficiencies and increase the rate of return from every single capital asset.

Starting from using electronic control, metering and monitoring and advancing to digital metering that can map the use the use of electricity at different times of the day, right up to the household level, the effort of the electricity utility companies was to control and manage demand-side requirements.
The second was technological. Advances in digital technology made it possible to not only to bring in devices, like electronic and digital meters, but also communication networks that could be laid over existing grids making it possible to understand load factors better and bring in more efficiencies. Such grids came to be known as smart grids.

But technology today has moved beyond these first generation grids. The second-generation smart grids can bundle various utilities over one network – gas, broadband connection, telephone lines, water and even e-banking  – and provide reliable and sustainable connections to a variety of disparate devices. Such grids are device and network agnostic, allowing data to be stored in the cloud, and can provide for customised solutions.

Today, smart grids routinely employ sensors that are capable of detecting anomalies in electricity, gas, broadband internet and water quality over large geographic areas. Such a smart grid, binding different digital technologies together, is called wide area measurement system (WAMS).
Several countries are planning to integrate this technology for their utility services. In fact, China is slated to have a comprehensive national WAMS by the end of this year.

The manner in which the suite of digital technologies constituting the smart grid is evolving, it will only be a matter of time before the grid itself transforms into a digital network. Like all digital networks, it will have the ability to detect problems and allow for self-healing through the self-installation of patches. Exactly like how doctors treat a sick human being with antibiotics.

The third-generation smart grid will not only ensure a more reliable of supply of electricity, gas, water, broadband and telecommunications, but would also reduce the vulnerability to natural disasters and attacks.

A third-generation smart grid can also easily manage the reverse flow if a local sub-network generates more power than it is consuming. Reverse flow, also called bidirectional flow, is a distinct possibility in India due to its policy emphasis on generating at least 10% of its electricity from non-conventional and renewable energy sources like solar panels and wind turbines by 2020.

One just needs to glance at the condition of the state electricity boards (SEBs) and the kind of T&D losses that they face on a year-on-year basis. To top it up, the capital assets of SEBs are depreciating and becoming obsolete.

In such a scenario, a nation-wide policy to implement third-generation smart grid technology, along with a rapid modernisation of the infrastructure of the utilities through private participation, can help India skip leapfrog one whole development cycle.

The public utilities system in India is seriously sick. It needs a doctor.

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