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Editorial | April 2017

Our Power Grids - the Journey Ahead

Making electricity available 24x7 to all our countrymen remains a challenge. This challenge has less to do with our generation capacity, and more to do with our transmission and distribution capability. In the past, there used to be numerous disturbances in our power transmission grids, mainly due to lack of observance of grid discipline, but also due to obsolete or inadequate protective equipment, and some of these disturbances even ballooned into infamous grid collapses plunging large swathes of our country into darkness for hours. But then, the situation has vastly improved lately, on both counts of discipline and switchgear, and hopefully, instances of major grid failures are now behind us. However, newer and equally complicated challenges now confront our transmission infrastructure.

The first one that I want to discuss is the challenge caused by a decided shift in our energy mix that is slowly, but surely, taking shape. As part of our climate change commitments, and also to conserve our natural fossil resources, we are moving in the direction of installing 175 GW of renewable capacities by 2022. Now, as we all know, renewable energy is not available 24x7, and in the absence of viable and sizable power storage technology, we have to fall back on conventional power stations at different times of the day or different seasons of the year. The learning from the countries in Western Europe or Scandinavia suggest that this can at best be managed by a highly responsive combination of regulations and grid management, against which requirement, our current policies and grid facilities are simply not upto the mark as of now. We have a long way to go, to upgrade our rules, regulations, policies and thinking, and to improve our grid technologies, as we realize our renewables aspirations and as our solar penetration increases.

The other big problem is the health of the discom's, the state owned distribution companies in various states. Absence of strong governance, suspect financial health, rampant political interferences, etc., all have contributed to weakening these entities, severely compromising their ability to operate and discharge their mandates on meaningful economic considerations. Unless our distribution arms are able to operate as rational buyers/intermediaries of energy, and act as a viable link between the energy sources and the consumer, the real-time energy market will remain grossly imperfect. This situation has to change, and efforts are on at a national level to make this happen, by incentivising this highly complex transformation, but the jury is still out on the potential success of this initiative.

Industries go through tumultuous upheavals on rare occasions in centuries, like, for example the recent revolution in the telecom sector. It does appear that the energy sector is also going to undergo sea changes in the coming years, and it is almost certain that the resulting disruptive challenges will have to be largely resolved by innovative improvements in the way we build, maintain and manage our grids. This is not going to be easy by any means. But hopefully, and as always, technology will come to our rescue - with possibilities of digitalization, smart metering, storage solutions and such others already looking quite promising. Our energy systems have a long and arduous journey ahead, given that India has ranked a lowly 87th among 127 countries rated in the fifth annual Global Energy Architecture Performance Index Report 2017.

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