Smart grid, the latest buzzword in infrastructure, is touted as the “smart” panacea to some of the most critical and persistent problems facing the transmission and distribution (T&D) segment of the electricity sector in the country.
Similar in concept to the Internet, a smart grid would use computers and communication technologies to enable more efficient flow of electricity over a shared, interoperable network. It contains both hardware devices and software applications— seamlessly integrated to ensure real-time and uninterrupted communication with each other—that makes the grid an intelligent bidirectional digital network, unlike conventional unidirectional ones.
Photo: Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
In recent months, governments across the world have unveiled ambitious plans in the backdrop of massive investments to transform their electricity networks into smart grids. Such investments have been among the most high-profile allocations in the fiscal stimulus programmes in both the US and China.
The government of India initiated the Restructured-Accelerated Power Development and Reforms Programme with the intention of intensifying the use of information technology (IT) in distribution, in a bid to reduce aggregate technical and commercial (AT&C) losses.
However, instead of being carried away by the attractiveness of these technology-intensive investments, it is important that policymakers appreciate the fundamental sectoral challenges these would throw up and the practical limitations of such interventions in our conditions. In the absence of a healthy dose of realism, the dash towards smart grids could leave electricity utilities by the wayside with massive investments in IT hardware, and neither the expertise nor the enabling framework to make effective use of them.
A true smart grid will be revolutionary and offer numerous benefits to all stakeholders—generation, transmission and distribution companies, and consumers. For generators, a smart grid enables them to schedule their generation more efficiently as well as switch between different modes of output based on demand. This assumes greater importance in view of the large proposed capacity additions in intermittent power sources such as wind and solar energy. It would also promote effective management of decentralized generation.
Smart grids contain sensors and load control switches inside various equipment that can monitor, pre-emptively detect and repair defects in the T&D network. Such technologies can be used to reduce interruptions and outages while minimizing maintenance expenditures.
One of the most persistent challenges facing power sector reforms in India has been the inability to address the very high AT&C losses— almost 30% in 2009. While less than one-fifth of this can be attributed to technical losses, the bulk are commercial—arising from theft, irregular billing and poor collections.
These losses can be considerably reduced with the introduction of smart energy meters—high-accuracy electronic meters with tamper detection, remote billing, disconnection and reconnection features. This can be done in a phased manner, initially involving industrial and high-use commercial and residential customers. This will enable utilities to follow the example of telephone firms and undertake centralized billing with disconnections of defaulting customers. To complement this, a distribution network mapped on a geographic information system (GIS) can help capture the entire customer base.
In view of the slow pace of capacity addition, rapid economic growth and considerable pent-up demand, peak power deficits—forecast by management consultant KPMG to be 12.6% for 2010—are likely to remain in the foreseeable future. Differential pricing regimes such as availability-based tariff or time-of-day tariff can incentivize at least the industrial and other bulk consumers to exercise “demand response” and shift a percentage of their activities to non-peak times and thereby smoothen the peaking load profile. A smart grid with smart meters, supported by an appropriate regulatory framework, can help implement such tariff regimes.
Additionally, network-integrated, user-friendly, real-time home energy-monitoring tools can help consumers access information about their energy use and minimize consumption accordingly. It can also help link home generation sources such as solar panels with the grid. However, such last-mile integration (to deliver value-added services) that require “smart” home electricity controllers and domestic electrical appliances that respond automatically to dynamic load conditions may be far from realistic in the short term in India.
Further, by optimizing on energy use, smart grids can also contribute towards addressing climate change. Many such investments can also be self-financing, at least partially, by selling carbon credits under the Kyoto Protocol.
A robust and versatile smart grid requires an enabling regulatory and operational framework—uniform interoperability standards and protocols for each of the myriad components of a smart grid. The absence of uniform metering protocols and the reluctance of meter manufacturers to share their protocols to enable integration with external devices has already adversely affected the growth of automatic metering infrastructure in India.
In any case, investments in a smart grid will have to be compounded with massive spending on modernizing and expanding existing T&D networks. Finally, a smart grid cannot make up for inadequate maintenance of existing networks, uncontrolled power theft, irregular billing and poor collection efficiency that remain nagging problems.
Gulzar Natarajan is a civil servant. These are the author’s personal views. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org