Article   |   Mark Andrews   |   15.06.2022

A smart-thinking approach to tackle the pressure on India’s power grid

Unusually hot weather conditions and the resulting surge in demand for power-draining air conditioning units are pushing India’s power grid to its limit. Power outages are already impacting daily life and with fears of further disruption ahead, finding a solution to easing the strain is now a matter of critical national importance. Could a smart grid model, similar to that of Norway and Australia, be a way forward for the future? Our VP Grid & Power Systems, Mark Andrews, sheds some light.

The challenges that Australia and India face in maintaining the power supply on a daily basis are strikingly similar. In a warming world, weather is having an increasingly disruptive influence on power and its transmission, as the current heatwave in India is showing.

This particular heatwave has resulted in record demand for electricity from the grid. According to the Government of India’s National Load Dispatch Centre (NLDC), during the final week of April when a record 45.6 degrees Celsius was recorded in Haryana, the states of Punjab, Haryana, and Rajasthan all recorded a rising demand in energy throughout the day, peaking at around 14 500 MW on 1st May in Rajasthan. These three states have also been amongst the hardest hit by energy shortages – in the same week, peak hour shortfall ranged between 13MW and 1543MW, with Haryana recording a shortfall range of 1013MW and 1355MW over the days of the 28th and 29th of April, in addition to its record-breaking temperatures. Increasing heat will result in more frequent and intense weather phenomena, in regions more susceptible to grid faults during these moments.

India, interestingly, has the potential to enhance flexibility within its grid, unlike many other countries. Figures from the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) suggest that that the combination of wind and solar energy could deliver around 11 750MW of energy across all grid sectors. Add in some 1 800 from other sources, and there is a potential for this figure to exceed 13 500MW.

However, until the infrastructure and investment reach a level by which these renewable sources can be utilised fully, sources such as coal (Haryana consumed some 30 000 tonnes on 28th April) will remain in high demand, especially with such intense heat conditions increasing the use of energy-draining air conditioning units. In a changing world, the way forward for India to capitalise on a shift from large scale conventional fossil fuel power generation systems to renewable energy systems which are low-cost, efficient and scalable, is to draw on the wealth of information which can be obtained through smart grid connections and storage technologies. The precise role of energy storage systems, such as battery (BESS) or pumped hydropower storage (PHS), and the sophisticated flexible controls provided by a smart grid system can be explored and implemented through gaining greater clarity of the specific issues at hand.

Here, India could learn from the digitalisation of Norway’s power grid. Research published in 2021 points to the rollout of smart technology in the country as a “top-down initiative with economic incentives” with the aim of getting some form of control over unpredictable variables and, ultimately, maintain critical connections.

The ongoing complexity of energy supply means power grids are and to some extent, always will be, vulnerable to external forces. Continuing the topic of climate change and extreme weather, the timings of the seasons themselves appears to be changing – India’s latest heatwave was comparatively early, with the month of April being the third hottest on record - causing planning headaches for energy providers struggling to balance the resulting demand challenges. At the same time, the variety of inputs from solar and wind in addition to the traditional use of fossil fuels creates further instability.

At present, it is unclear which features of smart meters will aid in alleviating the shortfall in transmission infrastructure capabilities, as these mainly apply to distribution. Aspects of demand-side flexibility, flexibility in conventional power plants, BESS and PHS storage, and grid flexibility, as well as connection policy requirements should all be added to ensure extra high voltage (EHV) transmission grid stability and reliability.

If we use Australia as an example, a full national roll-out of smart meters has been frustratingly slow, given the ambitious nature of global net zero targets and a need to make renewable energy cost-effective for the everyday consumer. There are suggestions that getting Australia’s grid to reach 50% of smart meter penetration – where the benefits will be most notable, according to the Australian Energy Market Commission – will take at least four or five more years, as a consequence of limited legislative guidance and consumer awareness. Furthermore, Australia’s distribution network service providers (DNSPs) do not necessarily have all the information they ideally require about voltages and energy flows in the network from various sources.

State and geographical borders are another factor to consider in addressing energy supply. A surge in demand in one area has the potential to create further outage disruption in another, if data is confined to these two separate locales. Through the use of real-time risk calculations and scenario modelling, grid operators can assess the full impacts caused by even the slightest change in circumstances and ascertain which protocol to follow in order to keep the disruption to the absolute minimum.

India experienced another huge outage in 2012, which left more than 700 million people without power. Three out of India’s five grids failed almost simultaneously during a spell of 40°C weather, not unlike the situation we are witnessing today nearly a decade later. Whilst there are always unique influences at play in these scenarios, being able to gain any sort of advanced warning is critical in preparing contingency measures.

India’s aim to be a world leader in energy, alongside the likes of the USA and China, is ambitious and commendable. But it still has a long way to go yet. Take its target of charging 102million electric vehicles by 2030 for instance; that would mean a sizeable investment in installing some three million public charging points. Though progress is well underway to achieve this goal – in the nine cities across India with a population greater than four million people, 940 public EV chargers were implemented in the final quarter of 2021 – and a pledge from the government to continue this expansion, the impact of the increase in input on an already-stressed grid had not been taken into account. Caution will need to be exercised as the EV landscape continues evolving.

Implementing a smart grid is similar to improving transport links – upgrades may ultimately make a journey smoother, but only after significant congestion, speed restrictions, and road or rail closures. Perhaps one of the trickiest areas is a need for public education.

Rooftop photovoltaic solar panels (PVs) on domestic properties is a clear example of this. Though they are becoming increasingly common, the effect these have on the feeder voltage profile cannot practically be monitored or modelled in real time, even with so-called ‘smart’ meters. Only basic data pertaining to generation and load is available, resulting in more granular data being missed.

By grouping real-time and historic data together into one scenario model, the load in specific grid segments can be monitored and adjusted. Granted, there is more to a smart grid than this, but with India’s power generation remaining vulnerable, perhaps now is the time for a smart-thinking approach.