The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has accentuated the need to automate and digitalize practices and processes in the renewable energy sector. There is enormous potential for the industry to adopt smarter solutions to increase efficiency and decrease delays through and post-pandemic.
Although alternatives already exist, the pace at which the industry is adopting them has remained slow. The Pandemic has revealed the flaws in the government processes, which is overly reliant on manual in-person processes and interactions. Whereas organizations adopting automation have fared better during the pandemic.
For example, DISCOMs with robust online payment systems reported a better rate of payment collections after lockdown. The Bangalore Electricity Supply Company had told Mercom that about 61% of their bill collections came through online payment gateways like Electronic Service (ECS), debit or credit card, and net banking. The Tata Power Delhi Distribution, a power utility supplier, catering to seven million customers in the north and north-west Delhi, said it received over 90% of its bill payments in digital mode during the lockdown.
The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy has asked all the State Electricity Regulatory Commissions amid the pandemic to allow the online listing of petitions and hear urgent matters through video conferencing after receiving a request from renewable energy developers.
There are more cases to be made for speeding up automation and digitalization in the industry. Many processes could be made more efficient by implementing solutions that are already in the market.
A prime example is the digitalization of the e-procurement process for renewable projects. Electronic procurement and tendering platforms have helped the Indian renewable sector remain operational over the last few months amid the COVID crisis. Government organizations like the Solar Energy Corporation of India (SECI) and NTPC Limited continued to float projects despite the nationwide lockdown and associated issues.
E-procurement platforms like the Central Public Procurement Portal (CPPP) were developed by the National Informatics Centre of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, in association with the Procurement Policy Division of the Ministry of Finance. The CPPP was set up to provide a single point of access to procure information issued by different government ministries and departments.
Central and state government organizations currently float renewable projects on their respective portals based on the CPPP platform or others. However, platforms like Bharat-ElectronicTender.com have been around since 2010 and have gained popularity with their additional efficiency and security benefits.
Arjun Kohli, Director, ISN Electronic Tender Services, the company managing and operating the Bharat-ElectronicTender.com portal, explained that since 2015, government agencies like NTPC, SECI, Rewa Ultra Mega Solar (RUMS), among others, have achieved multiple record tariffs using their e-tendering and e-auctioning platform.
“ElectronicTender has worked with government and multilateral agencies on specialized processes required for achieving the best results since its inception, and about 120 government organizations have used it so far. Since 2015, this has become the default tendering system as far as renewable energy project tendering is concerned,” Kohli added.
Kohli explained that their e-tendering platform allowed for competitive bidding to be conducted in a much more efficient, transparent, and secure manner. The objective of e-procurement was always to increase transparency and efficiency in the overall competitive bidding process. In addition to this, costs have also gone down.
He explained that most of the major achievements by the government in terms of tariffs, including the recent record-low of ₹2.36 (~$0.032)/kWh in SECI’s auction for 2 GW of the interstate transmission system (ISTS) connected solar projects (Tranche IX) was achieved through the Bharat-ElectronicTender.com platform.
Other aspects of the project tendering process are also gradually being made digital. Because of the Coronavirus pandemic, organizations have shifted to virtual means to conduct pre-bid meetings. This is only expected to spread to other aspects of the bidding process as well.
Currently, online platforms are being used for bid submission and opening. Soon, e-tendering platforms will also allow for bids to be evaluated online.
“We hope that detailed online evaluation of bids with comprehensive audit trails, conducted by multiple multi-member online committees, will also be done in the future using ElectronicTender platforms. So far, ElectronicTender platforms have facilitated detailed online bid submission, online public bid-opening and allied processes with unquestionable integrity and transparency, whereas evaluation has so far been offline. This could move online in the future, and assist the government in achieving greater work-from-home work-culture, in handling more effectively the COVID-19 pandemic threat, and also lower vehicle-related pollution levels,” said Jitendra Kohli, Managing Director, ElectronicTender.com (India) Private Limited.
“Pre-tendering processes, like planning and approval from internal and external authorities, could also be made online. The features are already available on ElectronicTender platforms, but organizations have not yet started using these,” he added.
Contrary to popular belief, automating and digitalizing processes can help create employment opportunities rather than removing them. If implemented properly, these solutions could outweigh any additional costs and adverse repercussions in the long run.
“Automation and digitalization do not hurt employment. Thanks to the increase in efficiency and output, more manpower is required to handle the additional manual processes. You will always need a workforce. You are still creating employment by implementing automation solutions,” said an official from a cell manufacturing company.
A lot can be achieved just by implementing more intelligent systems across the renewable industry. Plenty of these options are already available. It remains to be seen how quickly they are adopted and implemented into everyday processes across value chains.
Mercom has previously written about the benefits that components like smart meters have allowed amid the ongoing pandemic. These systems allowed utilities to monitor power consumption and collect dues more efficiently.
“Automating processes can increase efficiency, decrease costs and delays. With all the technology available, there is no reason why renewable companies cannot apply for licenses and permits online. To their credit, government officials have adopted video conferences and online meetings enthusiastically, and are recognizing the efficiencies of going digital. The next big step is being able to sign documents remotely, which is already a common practice in many parts of the world. For all its ugliness, the pandemic has forced the adoption of certain technology faster than thought possible.” Said Raj Prabhu, CEO of Mercom Capital Group. The momentum should continue, and digitalization/automation of practices and process should become a top government priority.”
Nithin is a staff reporter at Mercom India. Previously with Reuters News, he has covered oil, metals and agricultural commodity markets across global markets. He has also covered refinery and pipeline explosions, oil and gas leaks, Atlantic region hurricane developments, and other natural disasters. Nithin holds a Masters Degree in Applied Economics from Christ University, Bangalore and a Bachelor’s Degree in Commerce from Loyola College, Chennai. More articles from Nithin.