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Smart Grids, Smart Vehicles and a Smart Future in India

The future of electricity is getting smarter that means good infrastructure planning requires increasingly smart insight. But how do you perform this complex task in a country with a population of over 1.3 billion people? That’s the challenge facing the utilities industry and decision makers in India.

“The traditional boundaries between generation, transmission and distribution are fast disappearing. The evolving grid will be a network of communicating devices… with digital technologies at the centre of a smart grid.”

These are the words of Reji Kumar Pillai, President of the India Smart Grid Forum and Chairman of the Global Smart Grid Federation. With the huge challenge of driving a smarter future of electricity across a country spanning over 3.2 million square kilometres, we caught up with Reji to discuss renewable energy, smart grid opportunity, and the particular drawbacks and benefits of electric vehicles (EV) in India.

Electrifying India

“In India, we are still struggling with mundane issues of access, availability and network losses. But at the same time we have done incredible work on renewables and grid modernisation, particularly the transmission grid. Today we operate one of the largest and most complex grids in the world, covering 3 million square kilometres, with 345 GW capacity and 275 million customers operating on one frequency,” said Reji.

India has expanded electrification from 43.3% in 1990 to 84.5% by 2016

There’s no doubting that India’s electrification ambitions tell an impressive story over recent decades. According to World Bank figures, India has expanded electrification from just 43.3% of the population in 1990, to 84.5% by 2016. The nation’s electricity ambitions have evolved significantly over this period, as smart grids and emerging technology frame new opportunities and challenges.

First amongst them is renewable energy. India currently has 70 GW of installed renewable energy capacity, more than double the entire installed electricity capacity of Malaysia in 2015. The country also has a further 40 GW under construction, with targets to achieve 227 GW of installed renewable energy by 2022. According to Reji, smart grid technology will be essential in achieving these goals.

“With distributed generation and mainstreaming of renewables, electric utilities are at the threshold of a paradigm change. New technologies such as energy storage, electric vehicles, smart microgrids and digitalisation are changing the structure and operational dynamics of the utilities. Flexibility of both generation and consumption is required, with digital technologies playing the main role in grid balancing.”

These emerging opportunities frame a particularly significant opportunity in India when it comes to the role of electric vehicles.

Cleaner energy for cleaner cities

When you live in a country of 1.3 billion people, there are 1.3 billion reasons why people need to get around. So it comes as no shock that India is home to a substantial number of vehicles, 210 million of them at last count. That has an unfortunate impact on the air quality of India’s busiest cities, as Reji highlights.

“Delhi, where I live, is considered to be the most polluted city in the world. We have a population of 27 million, and over 10 million vehicles registered in Delhi itself, besides many more coming from neighbouring states. Most of the year, Delhi’s PM2.5 levels (a measure of pollution) is around 300-400, compared to a safe limit of 40. During winter months it goes beyond 600!”

The cleaner the electricity that powers EVs, the greener the footprint

The widespread adoption of renewable energy amplifies the benefits of EV technology. The cleaner the electricity that powers EVs, the greener the footprint of this technology will be. Such vehicles offer a particularly important opportunity in places like Delhi, where Reji points out that in the worst months, air pollution is equivalent to smoking 10-20 cigarettes a day for every citizen, regardless of age or health.

Like any emerging technology, EV does not come without challenges, providing dynamic and often unpredictable load demands on the energy grid.

“Electric vehicles are the new challenges to the grid operators. Even small electric cars have batteries of 25-35 kWh capacities, more than ten times the size of room air conditioners. An EV driver could charge the vehicle from his home or office or any other place he is visiting.”

Added to this challenge is the consumption influence displayed by EV owners. Once one individual in a social group or neighbourhood purchases an electric vehicle, others nearby are influenced to do the same, concentrating energy demand in a particular area.

Smart solutions that adapt

Renewable energy, smart grid solutions and electric vehicles offer an increasingly exciting vision of India’s electrifying future. Although implementing these technologies does not come without difficulties, the opportunities they present promise far bigger rewards.

India’s grid is growing at the rate of 8-10 percent every year

India’s grid is growing at the rate of 8-10 percent every year! The first set of smart grid pilot projects are about to be completed, and large rollouts of smart metering has already commenced. There is also a plan to roll out 5-7 million EVs in next 5 years. India is moving fast on the smart grid front,” Reji says.

The challenges of delivering smart grid and emerging technologies to a population of 1.3 billion people are substantial. So too should be the optimism India’s successes demonstrate. So what does the future hold? Here’s what Reji has to say.

“Predicting the future is too risky, rather I would advocate for inventing the future. The grid of 2030-2040 will be very different from the present day grids in most parts of the world. An era of abundant clean energy from solar and wind which could be stored cheaply and transported as well is very much on the horizon… utilities must prepare a comprehensive smart grid roadmap which will critically assess existing systems and draw a phased implementation plan for new systems over 10 to 15 years.”

What lessons can we learn from India? A smart future requires smart planning, and though the challenges are real, so too are the substantial benefits that innovation in electricity networks could unleash.



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