A Smarter Grid Imperative for Efficient Clean Energy Transition GE Interview

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Maintaining grid stability is critical to transmitting the required power to consumers with increasing energy demands.

Due to their intermittency, renewable assets require greater flexibility to incorporate distributed energy resources. Therefore, transitioning to a smarter and more efficient grid for the future becomes essential.

India’s installed renewable energy capacity, including large hydro projects, stood at 159.81 GW, accounting for a 40.15% share of the overall power capacity mix at the end of the Q2, 2022, according to data from the Central Electricity Authority (CEA), Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE), and Mercom’s India Solar Project Tracker.

India’s renewable energy targets urgently require state utilities to make informed and accurate decisions, and advanced smart grid management systems will also play a key role.

Electric utilities must ensure that their critical technologies are integrated and work together seamlessly to reap the benefits of digitization.

GE’s Digital Grid is one such company deploying smart grid technologies to allow clean energy transition with better grid stability and reliability. GE’s software manages more than 50% of the power flow in India and 40% of electricity worldwide.

Mercom spoke to Deepak Pandey, Director of Business Operations for GE’s South Asia ‘Digital Grid’ Business, to discuss the key technology innovations driving the future of the electricity grid and how artificial intelligence (AI), cloud computing, and digitalization could benefit India’s electricity grid.

What is the status of adopting smart grids in the Indian market? Why is it important to digitalize the existing power grids?

India’s growth has been heterogeneous due to demographic and governance variables. Certain utilities are doing great work in adopting the latest technologies, and some are struggling to maintain existing assets and provide a reasonable quality of services. Similarly, there are certain electrical segments where the adoption of technologies is very rapid, such as the consumer side for Automated Meter Reading (AMI)/Advanced Metering Infrastructure, distributed energy generation, etc. The electrical distribution segment, managed by distribution companies (DISCOMs), requires a higher pace for reforms and technology adoption. The government has been making consistent efforts to modernize the distribution segment with various reforms programs such as Accelerated Power Development and Reform Program (APDRP), Restructured APDRP, Ujwal DISCOM Assurance Yojana, Integrated Power Development program and Revamped Distribution Sector program. These encourage the adoption of technologies toward making the grid smarter.

The grid is expanding rapidly, and so is energy demand and generation pattern. With improvements in lifestyle, the enhanced expectation of power reliability, renewable energy adoption, change in consumption patterns, the inclusion of Electric Vehicles, and bi-directional power flow by prosumers, managing energy orchestration has become far more complex. Considering the dynamics of cyber security, grid security is also a significant concern. With such dynamics, grid management is not possible without digital transformation.

What is GE doing to increase the adoption of the smart grid across the country?

GE is a key stakeholder in providing digital grid solutions for all segments of the electric grid, be it generation, transmission, distribution, or consumption. More than 50% transmission of power in the country is being monitored and controlled by GE’s technology. GE has established more than 80 control centers in India and neighboring countries for monitoring and managing the power transmission network. GE’s technology is enhancing grid reliability and stability. In the distribution sector, GE has provided technology solutions to private and public utilities and has been part of various government reform programs. GE has successfully delivered one of the first smart grid pilots launched by the National Smart Grid Mission under the Ministry of Power.

GE’s Asset Management Software – Geographical Information System (GIS) — is used by many distribution utilities to map their complete distribution network and assets. This is the base layer of digitalization which is a must and a starting point for any distribution utilities. GE’s SCADA (Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition) and Advance Distribution Management System are benefiting many customers in India by providing uninterrupted power supply to its consumers. Time to provide new connections have reduced from weeks to 2 days, and severe storm outage has been reduced to a few hours.

What is the current size of microgrids across India, and which sector do you see adopting microgrids?

Microgrids are self-sustainable in electricity generation, transmission, and consumption and do not rely on conventional or main grid electricity. India has an ambitious plan of developing 10,000 renewable micro-and mini-grid projects with a capacity of 500 MW by the end of 2022 to connect all those places which were either not having last mile connectivity to the national grid or experiencing a shortage of power. The government has been promoting private players to set up these microgrids, but private players are moving slowly as they are unsure of the exact size and business returns. Beyond government initiatives to utilize microgrids to light up far and remote places, other industrial utilization and cost/benefit analysis are still to be established.

GE has deployed diesel and solar microgrid solutions in Bihar. Small biomass captive plants or wind are also used in a few cases. Renewable generation, especially solar and wind, coupled with battery storage technologies, has evolved the microgrid and made it more reliable. Microgrids are excellent solutions to supply power to remote households not connected to the national grid.

How will switching to advanced smart grid management systems help push the renewable energy target?

India had committed to generate 500 GW of power from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030 and reduce carbon emissions by one billion tons by the end of the decade at the COP26 conference, held in Glasgow in November last year. Renewable energy, especially solar and wind, is not constant, controllable, or predictable, and there may be a sudden increase or drop during the day. This poses a big threat to the grid’s stability and resiliency.

However, smart grid management systems are available to address these challenges with accurate generation forecasting, controllers to govern energy fluctuations, alternate energy resources for dampening variations, and provision for storage (battery/hydro/thermal storage). There are technologies like Wide Area Monitoring System and Phasor Measurement Units to capture fast variations in grid stability. Open market systems, like a renewable exchange, have also helped renewable generators expand their horizons from power purchase agreement-based selling to selling through power exchange. Favorable regulations of low inter-state wheeling charges for renewable power transmission have encouraged the industry to adopt more renewable energy.

How does cloud computing work for electric power grids?

Electrical power grids are a part of the nation’s critical infrastructure. Monitoring and controlling of power grids are in real-time with a high response rate. Cloud is generally referred to as public cloud line AWS or Azure. There are many private cloud solution providers as well. Due to latency and security, power grid transmission and distribution operators have relied on on-prime solutions with redundant architecture.

Many businesses have already transitioned to the cloud, such as Fast Moving Consumer Goods, Banking, Financial Services and Insurance, Hospitality industry or content-oriented businesses, etc. There is now a perception change on the security aspects of the cloud. However, latency is still a challenge for power system applications. I see this transition happening in two phases – first, non-real-time activities, including those not interfacing with critical operations or equipment, can move to cloud computing. For example, historical data for analytics and reporting, offline studies, various kinds of data modeling, forecasting solutions, asset health management, and performance analytics.

The second phase could be the transitions of real-time applications. The requirements of these applications are a high degree of reliability, communication speed, and security. This may not be possible with the public cloud. However, transmission utilities can be on-prime/cloud hybrid architecture to optimize total infrastructure cost. A few leading utilities are planning to set up their own data centers for leasing to DISCOMS, which is also an innovative way to approach the benefits of the cloud.

What is the way forward for smart grids?

The government is making a huge investment in reforms in this area. Utilities, regulators, and funding agencies must ensure such projects’ successful completion. Utilities must train their resources on smart grid technologies and build capacities to fully adopt and utilize technology.

Moving forward, smarter technology and applications are required to orchestrate different dynamics of distributed energy resources such as solar, wind, battery storage, and electrical vehicles. GE is working in this direction with a prioritized focus.