As city gas distribution (CGD) operators focus on managing large distribution areas, the adoption of IT services in order to improve the service delivery mechanism and minimise service disruptions in gas flow assumes importance. Prevention of service disruption and damage to gas transmission and distribution pipelines is crucial for the smooth and efficient functioning of CGD systems. A growing number of CGD operators have been adopting new technologies to ensure safe, convenient and reliable natural gas supply to customers in both the domestic and commercial sectors.
The country’s CGD system (comprising piped natural gas [PNG] and compressed natural gas [CNG]) involves a complex pipeline network, which is prone to disruptions and damage as large sections of pipelines lie in remote areas where assigning significant manpower for monitoring purposes is not practically feasible. The key challenges faced by CGD operators include those related to asset safety, network capacity management and expansion, and ensuring uninterrupted gas supplies. Also, due to the exposure of CGD network operators to financial risks owing to fuel price volatility, there is a need for these utilities to be able to access real-time financial information for responding to contingencies.
Going forward, expansion of the CGD market would involve several challenges – ensuring higher asset utilisation, mitigating operational risks and uncertainties, and providing efficient consumer services. Consequently, appropriate IT initiatives will help enhance efficiencies and meet customer expectations. The following are some of the key technology solutions implemented by key CGD operators in India.
Supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) is a computer-based solution that helps in monitoring operations at various points in the complex network of pipelines used for transporting natural gas from production sources to the end-consumers.
SCADA helps in monitoring and controlling natural gas flows through the pipeline by supplying the required data regarding gas flow to centralised gas control stations. These centralised gas stations assimilate and manage the data provided by SCADA and compressor stations. The data mainly comprises the flow rate through the pipeline, operational status, and pressure and temperature readings. It can be used to assess the status of the entire pipeline network at any point of time.
The SCADA system is connected with the pipeline network through various components such as the human-machine interface, supervisory (computer) systems, remote terminal units, programmable logic controllers and communications infrastructure. With the help of SCADA, inconsistencies in gas flows are reported at the time of occurrence, which allows the operator to immediately take corrective measures.
Various CGD operators are now increasingly connecting their SCADA systems to the internet, as their pipeline networks are spreading across large distances. SCADA has helped utilities such as GAIL Gas Limited, Indraprastha Gas Limited (IGL) and Mahanagar Gas Limited (MGL) by combining the monitored data with demand, environmental, physical and gas composition data across the enterprise for business decision support.
An enterprise resource planning (ERP) system is a completely integrated business management system incorporating all the functional areas of an organisation including finance, production and sales. The system integrates external and internal information across the organisation. The various phases of ERP implementation include pre-evaluation screening, package evaluation, project planning, gap analysis, re-engineering, customisation, training the implementation team, testing and operation.
Implementation of ERP solutions by CGD operators would facilitate business process integration and streamline information for expediting the decision-making process. Moreover, these solutions can be implemented within budgeted costs and schedules. ERP solutions help in achieving improved inventory management, saving on transportation expenditures, increasing sales and reducing day sales outstanding. CGD operators which have implemented ERP solutions include GAIL Gas Limited (GGL), GSPC Gas Company Limited, Gujarat Gas Company Limited and Assam Gas Limited.
Meanwhile, smart metering has emerged as an important tool for cost savings for both gas suppliers and consumers across the globe. However, most gas utilities in India are still at a nascent stage in terms of deploying smart metering technology, with only a few firms opting for a comprehensive roll-out.
Smart metering solutions help in accurate billing as they do away with the need for physical meters. Gas utilities in India such as GAIL utilise metering solutions like turbine gas meters (used to measure gas flows and large gas volumes) and rotary positive displacement meters (for measuring gas mixtures) and diaphragm gas meters (for measuring gas usage). Meanwhile, GSM-based metering facilities implemented by Central UP Gas Limited primarily for industrial users ensure high efficiency without any lag. Also, the Coriolis flow meters used for monitoring CNG sales result in low operation costs and high measurement accuracy. Moreover, the ultrasonic flow meters used by MGL and GAIL involve lower maintenance costs as they do not involve any moving parts.
In light of the advantages offered by smart metering systems, some progress has been made with regard to their implementation at the pilot level in select utilities. Nonetheless, infrastructural development and capacity building issues need to be addressed before the large-scale adoption of these metering projects.
The geographic information system (GIS) is designed to capture, store, analyse, manage and present all types of geographically referenced data. GIS is used for the CGD business in processes ranging from planning and engineering to operations and maintenance (O&M) of the network. It is used for enhancing customer service, supporting engineering and operations functions, increasing network reliability and reducing costs as well as for sourcing information related to the material used for piping, pipeline diameter and operating pressure. GIS can help manage issues related to gas leaks, corrosion, excavation damage and unplanned outages. Further, it enhances the efficacy of the CGD business by facilitating its integration with other business systems.
A well-integrated GIS enables gas utilities to share information on pipeline mains, services and cathodic sections instantly across the organisation, thereby helping in devising safety systems such as cathodic protection for new pipelines or in locating assets, helping in quick decision-making, enhancing customer services and optimising business processes. CGD operators such as GGL and MGL have implemented GIS to improve the efficiency of their CGD operations.
OMS and field operations
An outage management system (OMS) is a computer-based solution used by gas distribution utilities to discover, locate and resolve outages in an effective manner.
CGD operators implement OMS to be able to rapidly respond to outages and restore gas supplies. Emergency situations require CGD firms to integrate OMS with trouble call management processes and implement procedures for quick despatch of warehouse equipment to the site during contingencies. Implementation of an efficient OMS requires the utilities to maintain a vehicular fleet (such as cars and trucks) with global positioning system and appropriate communication devices such as radio/mobile phones and accurate maps, in addition to setting up of call centres.
Automated remote measuring devices with data links to a central site can help in measuring and reporting outages. Moreover, safe and efficient field operations necessitate gas distribution utilities to be equipped with audio-visual equipment for providing safety training to personnel and developing safety manuals, practices and procedures. Equipment maintenance manuals are also needed for utilities to plan life cycle maintenance. In addition, information on outages needs to be collected through investigation and processes related to asset management automation.
OMS integrated with GIS and other systems provides a simple, cost-efficient and risk-free way to track outages in the gas distribution system. Although the use of this web application in the CGD segment is limited at present, the system is expected to attract the interest of Indian gas utilities going forward.
Asset integrity management (AIM) provides end-to-end support to an enterprise, covering the life of an asset, involving planning and design, construction, commissioning, O&M, and maintenance and decommissioning. As CGD assets are exposed to various unforeseen damage originating from internal risks such as pipeline leakages and failure of pressure valves/gas flow regulators as well as external risks like natural calamities and ground digging, the use of AIM is crucial for the O&M of pipelines. For effective AIM, CGD operators need to maintain an asset register (providing information on all the relevant assets of an enterprise); and prepare a capital management programme using information on depreciation and the net value provided by the asset register as well as a work management system, which stipulates the various maintenance and inspection schedules.
In India, MGL has adopted a holistic approach towards AIM. The company’s core asset integrity approach includes undertaking quantitative risk assessments, hazard and operability studies, integrity audits and competency assessments.
CIS and web-enabled services
The customer information system (CIS) is a key part of the overall utility management information system. CIS consists of customer information, meter reading data, customer invoices, payment and receipt modules, connections, disconnections and reconnections, cash control and reporting, report modules by account type, receivable sub-ledger, customer security deposits and customer project risk deposits. These parameters are critical for the firm’s revenue realisation.
In order to engage customers, CGD utilities are now undertaking field-level research through various surveys to assess their requirements. As an increasing number of CGD operators opt for the above-mentioned technology solutions to improve their operations, the efficiency of the segment is set to improve in the near future.