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Renew | October 2015

Why India needs Microgrid

In an era where mankind is planning intra-planetary travel, jet speeds are expected to double, and a click of button is enough to get majority of things done; almost one-third of the Indian population does not have access to electricity and another one-third do not have sustained electricity for several hours in a day.

While access to electricity-a basic infrastructural requirement for development-and village electrification has been a priority for the governments for several years now, the progress achieved has been very slow.

We see two main challenges; one - although we claim that almost 97 per cent of villages have been electrified, the definition of village electrification in India is baffling. Here it is: a village is considered as electrified if at least 10 percent of households and all common or public areas such as schools and clinics have an electric connection.

Second, although electric lines might have been laid out across rural areas and villages, it is necessary to note that a household is not meaningfully electrified if there is no consistent power supply. In a period when economic growth is of high priority, the un-electrified countryside remains a key concern and provides untapped opportunities.

It is important to understand the reasons for this situation. Electrification in India has proceeded from thermal/hydro generation and gradually evolved to large ultra-mega thermal plants at pit heads with a complex transmission grid. We have all along followed a single way of electrification, be it village, town or cities-i.e. by simply extending the grid in a conventional way.

It would not be out of context to draw the parallels between telephones and electricity. Had we decided to extend the land telephone lines and exchanges instead of focusing on cell phone technology, we would not have reached even half the telephone density that we currently have. Mobile technology in telephones brought a paradigm shift and the penetration density leapfrogged across every nook and corner of the country.

Although the growth of mobile telephones is a truly global story, the high degree of adoption across all parts of the country including remote parts was baffling. Similarly, the convergence of new technology, renewable energy development and increased number of grid outages (our worst grid black out was on 2012 where almost 640 million people were effected and 48 GW of power was disrupted) is sending us back to the future, to a new kind of alternative, like the Microgrid.

Microgrid enables electricity generation at the source-level using locally available resources-be it solar, wind or hydro or combination of all or some of these resources, as a way of incorporating renewable power. Microgrid definitely has the power to make a difference and enlighten the lives of millions across the country.

What is a Microgrid?
Distributed energy resources and loads that can be operated in a controlled, coordinated way, either connected to the main power grid or in ¨islanded¨ mode can be termed as a Microgrid.

The concept makes use of all the location specific distributed generations and involves distributed transmission and distribution networks. Any localised generating station with its own power resources, generation and loads under a single control system qualifies for Microgrid. The distinguishing feature of Microgrid is its ability to separate and isolate itself from the main grid seamlessly as and when desired.

The need for Microgrid
To achieve 24x7 sustained quality power to every citizen of this country, irrespective of where he/she lives in shortest possible time, India needs Microgrid. Similar to the way adoption of mobile phone technology enabled faster penetration and affordable phones to one and all, penetration of Microgrids in the Indian power system could alter the power landscape. The system provides quality power by optimising various generation resources at affordable costs.

Faster electrification, Power for all
Grid expansion involves laying out transmission and distribution (T&D) infrastructure to reach out to the villages. Microgrid, on the other hand comprises of modular, decentralized on/off-grid energy systems, located in/near the place where energy is used. Considering the long gestation period of grid expansion projects, Microgrids provide a faster alternative for electrification and can ensure power access to most of the population.

Renewable Integration
The penetration of Renewable Energy Sources (RES) into Indian grid system in the last few years has been unprecedented. While low level of RES integration at lower voltage levels has been carried out, a country like India with vast sunshine is currently looking at large scale integration of renewables, especially solar.

What is important for the grid system as a whole is a balance of power, produced with the power consumed at every instant. As long as penetration levels of renewables is within a small percentage of the overall grid system, such variations could be adjusted by ramping up and down, the generation of the rest of the power system generation. Hence, the Microgrid concept of using RES is a building block towards the future for a long-term viable solution of energy needs.

Locational Advantages
Construction of T&D lines and associated challenges like land acquisition makes grid extension prohibitively expensive and difficult, especially in case of remote locations and populations spread over a larger area. Microgrids could provide a viable alternative for such places that are hard to reach due to their locational constraints.

Loss Reduction
Maintenance of a large distribution network and high T&D losses on such a network are major issues that the utilities have to deal with. India´s AT&C losses currently hover over the around 25 per cent mark. Typically, T&D costs account for almost one-third of the cost of delivered electricity. Microgrids obviate the need for an expensive transmission system and minimise T&D losses.

Beyond rural areasb
Large campuses like IT and industrial parks, educational institution, corporate office complexes, hospitals etc. in India run their power network on multiple sources. In most of the cases, these campuses are fully backed by diesel generators that are kept as a standby source. Microgrid can be deployed in these campuses for efficient use of various sources of generation, thus providing quality power at an affordable cost.

Way Forward
Considering the unique complexities within various parts of India including urban and rural areas, implementation of Microgrid does not come without associated challenges. One key challenge would be to seamlessly align this system with the national policies and programs to achieve meaningful levels of deployment. It is also imperative that the policies of both-the government and the regulators, are in sync. Correspondingly, to create a consumer driven electricity system that is accountable and truly sustainable, the onus would be to create transparent polices that augment technology adoption. It would also require awareness among end-users/consumers to take up Microgrid to the next level of wide-scale implementation.

- Authored by N Venu, President, Power Systems Division, ABB India.

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