Automation in Power Generation & Distribution
Published on : Thursday 02-02-2023
How automation can help electric grids become smarter to keep pace with renewables amidst increasingly dynamic conditions.
The India Energy Outlook 2021, a special report in the IEA’s World Energy Outlook series released two years ago, had predicted how India is set to see the largest increase in energy demand of any country over the next 20 years. The report had also highlighted potential for policies and investments to accelerate clean energy transition. But India’s quest for clean and renewable energy had begun post independence with a spate of hydroelectric projects as a result of which the country is 5th in the world regarding usable hydropower potential, according to a PIB release. Similarly, in solar power, the National Solar Mission (NSM) was launched in January 2010, a major initiative of the Government of India to promote ecological sustainable growth while addressing India’s energy security challenges. Today, India is the world's third largest producer of renewable energy, with 40% of its installed electricity capacity coming from non-fossil fuel sources. However, Green Energy is a buzzword today. How can automation and control help to scale up the Green Energy solutions to industrial levels?
According to Saurabh Kumar, Head, GEAPP India, automation and control can play a significant part in decarbonisation of industries with very unique and innovative business models. Kumar, a former Executive Vice Chairperson and Managing Director of Energy Efficiency Services Limited (EESL), a joint venture of public-sector undertakings under the Ministry of Power, Government of India, regards Energy as a service (EaaS) as one of the emerging business models wherein a service provider offers customer access to energy and management services without any associated upfront costs through a contract. “Contrary to today’s narrative of asset-focused centralised power generation and sale to customers who passively consume, EaaS manages energy assets and services end to end. This enables the industry to have expertise in energy management and energy efficiency and at the same time access to renewable energy as a service without having to invest in the infrastructure,” he says.
Rick Rys, Director of Consulting, ARC Advisory Group, Boston too shares the view that automation and control are required to run processes safely, efficiently, and securely. “The electric grid is quickly shifting to renewables which demand new market-based controls to keep power flowing at low cost and high reliability to handle increasingly dynamic conditions. New communications standards at substations like IEC 61850 can ensure high speed, redundancy, and security. Remote monitoring and control of distributed generation is essential. Microgrids that can smoothly connect and disconnect from a larger grid are part of the future automation,” he adds.
“Automation is the key to success and green energy is definitely a space where automation can play a very significant role,” agrees Dr Rashi Gupta, Founder & Managing Director, Vision Mechatronics. Having earned the nickname Batterywali of India, Rashi works in the fields of renewable energy, robotics and energy storage technology. “India is looking to add a massive 500 GW of renewable energy capacity by 2030, which is expected to have an investment of at least Rs 2.44 lakh crore according to the Central Electricity Authority (CEA). In order to achieve this, it is very important to have automation, right from the supply chain to manufacturing and generation – automation gives you speed, automation gives you accuracy, and that is what translates into efficiency, which is the need of the hour,” she asserts.
Power and Energy are frequently used (incorrectly) as interchangeable, but they are different terms. Power is the instantaneous quantity of energy. Many applications use energy out of a storage system, most common being batteries. The process of capturing energy in a battery at a time of surplus and using the energy at a time of need is an old concept, both in stationary applications and also in mobile vehicles. The hitch is that, both the storage and withdrawal have many losses involved. What are recent advances which drastically reduce such losses?
Sunil Khanna, Non-Executive Chairman, VERTIV, believes recent advances have significantly reduced losses in energy storage and withdrawal. “These include improved battery technology as advancements in lithium-ion and solid-state batteries have led to higher energy densities, longer lifetimes, and lower losses during charge and discharge cycles. Another factor is smart grid technology which optimises energy flow, reducing losses in transmission and distribution by dynamically balancing supply and demand. Then there are energy management systems that use algorithms to optimise energy usage and storage, reducing losses and increasing efficiency,” he explains.
“Grid-scale batteries have a vital role to play in the journey to a lower-carbon future, helping to address the intermittency of renewables like solar and wind, and assisting the goal of making electricity supplies more affordable and resilient,” opines Dr Ashish Manchanda, Managing Director, Finder India Pvt Ltd, who also believes Battery Energy Storage Systems (BESS) offer great flexibility, unlike some other forms of energy storage and generation. “Their response time is fast, turning on and off in fractions of a second to help maintain grid stability. They respond to peak demand, build grid resilience and provide backup power when you need it. Installing a behind-the-meter BESS on a site can help industry to improve its energy productivity, unlock revenue from various market schemes and at the same time deliver on Environmental, Social and Governance commitments,” he elaborates.
“Energy is a much broader term than Power, which is one form of energy. Power has to be used when generated – its time use depends on the storage available,” says Saurabh Kumar, who is of the view that while there are losses in storing power and withdrawing it later, the new age batteries Lithium Ion and other Advanced Cell Chemistry are reducing this to a bare minimum. “Unlike the Lead Acid Batteries where the losses are high, the new chemistries are much more efficient. However, the current issue is not so much about the losses but the economic cost of storage,” he states.
There is also the question of pollution as generation of electricity from fossil fuels causes up to 40% of CO2 emissions. Automation can play a big role firstly in creating the dashboards and also helping with algorithms to reduce these emissions. What are the trends in this matter which is occupying the mind space of leaders the world over?
“New EPA GHGRP (Green House Gas Reporting) rules require reporting of greenhouse gas (GHG) data and other relevant information from large GHG emission sources, fuel and industrial gas suppliers, and CO2 injection sites in the United States. Approximately 8,000 facilities are required to report their emissions annually, and the reported data are made available to the public in October of each year, says Rick Rys. “Improved automation can slightly improve operating efficiency of existing gas and oil power plants, and while important, these gains are not at the scale needed to bring down emissions to the levels that meet global warming targets like the 1.5 degree goal by 2050. Only process modifications like CCUS (carbon capture usage and storage) or huge, but unlikely breakthroughs in direct air capture of CO2 can save fossil powered generation and still meet global warming goals,” he adds.
“Data today is the gold mine that we were banking on and in the green energy space it is very important to understand that new technologies require newer algorithms and in this state of climate emergency we need to urgently reduce our CO2 emissions. First and foremost, tracking and analysing all the data that we have on emissions will help us reduce these effectively globally,” says Dr Rashi Gupta, who feels everyone is working towards effective implementation of climate change efforts because it is important to understand that this is the race to save mankind and not the climate; climate existed even before mankind and it will exist even after mankind. “The question is how effectively we can save ourselves from the impact that we have done by disturbing the ecosystem,” she asks.
Sunil Khanna is of the view that automation can play a role in reducing CO2 emissions during power generation from fossil fuels in several ways. According to him, these are:
i. Improved efficiency with automated systems optimising the combustion process to control emissions from fossil fuel-based power plants.
ii. Continuous monitoring and control of emissions levels, allowing for rapid detection and correction of emissions anomalies.
iii. Predictive maintenance and proactive maintenance, reducing downtime and emissions.
iv. Optimised operations of fossil fuel-based power plants, reducing energy waste and emissions.
v. Automated systems for carbon capture and storage, reducing emissions and improving their efficiency. Example: NITI Aayog planning Roadmap for Carbon Storage project.
“The use of digital twins can simulate the performance of fossil fuel-based power plants, allowing for optimisation and reduced emissions through virtual testing and experimentation. Also advanced analytics can provide insights that can be used to optimise operations and reduce emissions,” says Sunil Khanna.
Traditionally power transmission meant transporting energy generated from large utilities to consumption centres located well away. But today, with various alternate means of generation, who also have an ambition to export energy to the grid, the patterns have changed. There are multiple points of generation of various capacities with different constraints, which might impact grid stability. What steps are taken to induct the new technologies of AI and ML into this challenging area?
“With current forecasting techniques, utilities can largely predict total power output from alternate energy generation systems. These daily power outputs can be estimated relatively accurately using weather forecasts. However, short-term predictions (the minute-to-minute demands within a day) are difficult to create. Instantaneous changes in cloud cover or wind speed can result in varying power output from solar or wind-based systems. This presents a challenge for utilities as large variations in short-term power production can result in grid instabilities if they are not accounted for. AI Algorithms in such cases offer Stability through Real-Time Predictions,” says Dr Ashish Manchanda.
Saurabh Kumar believes that as the decentralised generation of energy is becoming more popular, the power sector is getting ‘democratised’ as their power plants are close to load centres (like Roof Top, etc.), and do not need long transmission lines. However, the fact that renewable energy remains something that is infirm, there are interventions using technologies that are needed to make effective use of them. “Depending on the particular market environment, a technology (AI/ML) based platform, also called the Virtual Power Plant (VPP) can accomplish a whole range of tasks with the objective to network distributed energy resources such as wind farms, solar parks, and Combined Heat and Power (CHP) units, in order to monitor, forecast, optimise and trade their power,” he explains.
Rick Rys draws attention to the offshore wind off the shallow Atlantic coast with some 74 GW of power already in the queue, which will soon become one of the biggest new sources of energy in the US. The plan is to have 30 GW in operation at a cost of more than $62 billion by 2030. Getting this power to shore is a project developer issue but upgrading the transmission system to move that power to where it is needed is in the planning for grid operators like ISO-NE, NYISO, and PJM. Grid operators are working with FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) to create new capacity markets and find ways to fund these new transmission investments. “AI and ML applications that can accurately forecast the unpredictability of wind and solar energy production will aid in managing grid operations to improve grid reliability and minimise the emissions from other sources. Using machine learning, wind power will improve asset management and maintenance planning to maximise the capacity factor to keep these rotating machines healthy and thus more profitable,” says Rick Rys.
One of the major challenges in power distribution is disruption to power supply due to faults in the distribution system. This forces many entities to resort to captive power generation systems, which are of a smaller capacity, and then usually of lower efficiency. One attempt all along has been to localise and repair faults rapidly. What new technologies have entered this field?
“There are definitely certain changes in the distribution system because of which we do face power disruptions and now there is an option available to have captive power generation through renewable energy sources and with the advancement in technology they have become quite efficient. If effectively managed, they can actually help in strengthening the grid as they will be distributed energy resources. Local generation, storage and use of the energy produced through renewable energy sources are effective, economic and efficient,” says Dr Rashi Gupta. According to her, technologies have revolutionised generations and mindsets to transform current infrastructure for the future, in which we have witnessed emergence of new business models, hybrid energy infrastructures and subcultures that upgrade the existing systems while eradicating faults altogether.
“To localise and repair power distribution faults rapidly, several new technologies have been introduced,” says Sunil Khanna, citing these as:
i. Advanced sensors, such as smart meters and phasor measurement units (PMUs) deployed to monitor the power grid in real-time, allowing for the rapid detection of faults.
ii. Predictive maintenance such as AI/ML used to analyse sensor data and predict potential faults, allowing for proactive maintenance and reducing downtime.
iii. Drones equipped with sensors and cameras used to inspect power lines, reducing the need for manual inspections and allowing for rapid fault localisation and repair.
iv. Smart grid management systems using AI and ML algorithms developed to optimise the distribution of power and quickly redirect power to other parts of the grid.
v. Mobile response teams equipped with advanced tools and technologies deployed to quickly respond to power outages and repair faults, reducing downtime.
“Examples of these technologies can be found in several countries around the world, such as the smart grid management systems developed by Siemens in Germany, the predictive maintenance technologies developed by GE in the US, and the drone-based inspection systems developed by UAV Systems in Australia,” explains Sunil Khanna.
“The power distribution grid is facing a unique set of challenges that are increasing pressure on an already struggling and ageing infrastructure. As a measure to counteract this trend, innovative and smart solutions are now being used that combine automation and decentralised applications to monitor and remotely control the grid,” says Dr Ashish Manchanda. According to him, automation solutions for distribution ensure the cost-efficient operation and maintenance of primary equipment, increased supply safety and voltage quality, and a rapid adjustment to changes in the distribution network. “Features such as fault detection, fault location, voltage and reactive power compensation, and power quality measurements are also now a part of automated systems,” he points out.
Finally, in a smart city, metering of electricity consumed needs smart meters. These meters need to do more than just measure the flow of power; they may also need to track time-of-day consumption, maximum demand and such parameters. What are the latest techniques in this field?
“Smart meters have emerged as the strongest reform measure that has been taken in the Distribution sector. Under the Revamped Distribution Sector Scheme (RDSS), the Government has announced that all 28 crore consumers will be switched over to smart meters,” says Saurabh Kumar, who is of the opinion that there are several benefits of the switch, including transparency to consumers of usage of energy, reduction in losses for utilities, overall load management and efficiencies at DISCOM level, and better quality power supply. “Using new techniques, like AI/ML, better demand and supply forecasting and scheduling could lead to better quality of power supply and higher consumer satisfaction,” he explains.
Dr Rashi Gupta is of the view that when technology is getting smarter, the metering also needs to be smart enough with evolving technology. Smart meters are also getting smarter and fully provide features like remote monitoring via communication devices and advanced features like remote load balancing and ticket based access controls. These should include home network interconnectivity, industry standard, H1 compliant port to ensure that they are ready for integration with smart buildings and smart home devices and associated applications. “With AI taking the front seat, smart meters are the concept of today. Maybe we will need AI-based metres for tomorrow,” she says.
“Smart metering is based on a combination of a device and a cloud solution. This enables permanent access to data collected on an ongoing basis and analysis in real-time, which is the greatest value of the entire solution. Smart Metering operates on the basis of established technologies such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, ethernet and LTE, as well as new ones such as Narrowband-IoT, which provide better signal penetration,” says Dr Ashish Manchanda. “Smart metering is becoming increasingly popular and is already a standard in India. When used as a factory solution together with the Industry 4.0 concept, it can produce tangible business results,” he concludes.