Digitalisation of Discoms

Improving operations, efficiency and flexibility

Utilities in the power distribution segment are embracing new technologies, driven by the need to lower losses, ensure proper energy accounting, enable data-driven decision-making and deliver better services to end consumers. In conventional distribution equipment such as cables, switchgear and distribution transformers, utilities are introducing safety and efficiency improvements with the use of higher capacity conductors, gas-insulated switchgear (GIS) and dry-type transformers. Digitalisation in discoms helps in delivering detailed asset performance data for real-time insights. Digitally enabled equipment (GIS, switchgear, transformers) makes real-time digital data available for internet of things applications, enabling remote grids, data collection and predictive asset management. In the event of a power outage, network solutions ensure automatic detection of faults, localisation, isolation and restoration, allowing quick resupply of power. Whether it is digital substations, digital distribution, communication and cybersecurity, virtual site management, asset performance management or workforce management, it is all part of a digital grid. Digitalisation improves connectivity between computers and assets. It also enhances cloud computing, data collection, and the ability to interpret the collected data using artificial intelligence (AI), predictive machine learning (ML) and blockchain.

Prerequisites for future discoms

Discoms need to invent and embrace new ways of looking at power systems. This can be done by increasing transparency and bringing efficiency into discom operations for better management of hybrid power and power loads, as well as by reducing commercial losses. In India, about a quarter of the population does not have 24×7 access to power. Digitalisation is thus required to improve the performance of discoms and make existing government schemes more efficacious. Moreover, there is a need to:

  • Upgrade distribution infrastructure to improve power quality and cope with the integration of renewables in the grid,
  • Increase billing efficiency via digital intervention, and
  • Improve asset health for predictive maintenance.

Therefore, the prerequisite for future discoms  is to become stronger, smarter and greener. For this, they need to transport more renewables with lower losses and capex, optimise outage-predicting assets, and lower their transmission and distribution losses and carbon footprint.

Benefits of digitalisation

Investing in smart grids, digitalisation and communications technology is crucial for the integration of renewables because data can help in optimising operational and capital expenditures. Digitalisation can enable increased visibility of the grid, data use from sensors to identify faults, and faster remote operations using advanced distribution management systems (ADMS). It can also help in maintenance, network extension and improve quality of supply, not only for electricity but also customer communications and billing.

By deploying smart meters, certain challenges can be easily identified and addressed. However, it is also extremely important to address such digital challenges as active system management, operation of digital tools, and cybersecurity risks. To stay one step ahead of hackers, utilities will need to shift from electrical workers to IT operators, who can not only manage congestion but also prevent it entirely using data science.

Key initiatives adopted by utilities

BSES Rajdhani Power Limited has undertaken predictive maintenance of assets using satellite/ drone-based services through a digital platform, which has also been useful in accurate asset mapping by creating digital twins. The traditional method of mapping assets by using the geographic information system or global positioning system has not been very accurate. Utilities are now using the global navigation satellite system, which can trace and rectify inaccuracies up to a range of 50 metres. These technologies are also very helpful in other areas, such as theft detection, and disaster management and prediction. Further, the company has incorporated a data lake, which offers a modern distributed architecture for the utility domain and applies platform thinking to create self-serve data infrastructure.

Meanwhile, Tata Power Delhi Distribution Limited (TPDDL) has created a digitisation index to determine the percentage of activity that can be digitalised. So far, the utility has digitalised 98-99 per cent of its activity. It has harnessed multiple interfaces for customer communications such as call centres, WhatsApp, SMS, social networks, and a missed call service for use during a power outage. TPDDL has also enabled over 200,000 radio frequency-based smart meters, and has seen a 25 per cent increase in digital payments during the pat one year. The company has also adopted several automated application testing methods to test capability, such as Selenium for testing of web applications, Appium for testing of mobile applications, Micro Focus Unified Functional Testing for system applications and products, and Jmeter for load/stress/performance testing.

New and emerging technologies

Monitoring systems differ across projects based on plant size, location, distance from O&M facilities, availability and performance ratio guarantees and financial capability. However, just collecting the right data is not sufficient. It needs to be carefully analysed to improve project output. This requires creating a connection between data on the digital side, and a strong initiative from developers and operators for performance improvement. Big data analytics, with proper AI and ML tools, is used to analyse this “high volume of high variety data with high velocity”.

Blockchain is another key emerging technology in the distribution segment. Blockchain is a distributed data processing technology, which enables all users participating in the network to distribute and store data. Applying blockchain technology to the smart grid will ensure secure management of energy data and contribute to the development of a future smart energy industry. It also allows for other scenarios that are already becoming popular, such as the use of conversational AI or chatbots to navigate common customer queries, as well as the use of AI to improve compliance and quality assurance in call centres.

Yet another technology solution is cloud computing. Cloud computing is useful for peak demand management and dynamic pricing. Requests from customers for complaint redressal can be scheduled based on priority, available resources and other applicable constraints, through the cloud. With the help of cloud-based infrastructure, widespread distributed renewable energy operations can be coordinated by the utilities at a minimal cost.

Further, utilities need to adopt ADMS, a software platform that breaks the traditional silo-style culture of managing power assets, data and operations. It supports the full suite of distribution, management and optimisation, and includes functions that automate outage restoration and optimise distribution grid performance. The ADMS functions for electric utilities include fault location, isolation and restoration; volt/volt ampere reactive optimisation; conservation through voltage reduction; peak demand management; and support for microgrids and electric vehicles.

Conclusion

Energy systems all over the world have achieved greater connectivity, efficiency, reliability and sustainability with energy digitalisation. In the coming years, digitalised energy systems may be able to identify who needs energy, and deliver it at the right time to the right place at the lowest cost. Digitalisation is expected to improve operations and increase flexibility throughout the power value chain. That said, with increasing digitalisation, data security is becoming a key concern. Discoms, therefore, need to ensure that their risk management and response practices are aligned to a digitally controlled environment. At any rate, adequate workforce training and change management are essential for the smooth adoption of digital solutions.