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Smaller, self-contained electricity grids are the need of the hour

Power utilities in developing economies like India face are often confronted with a two-pronged challenge in the energy-revenue chain: one, a gap between peak demand and installed capacity and, two, high levels of technical and commercial losses. Chennai-based Signals & Systems India Pvt Ltd or (SANDS) offers technological and innovative solutions to address this dichotomy through its products, training and services. In an exclusive interaction Dr L R Rajagopal, the firm’s CEO, tells IPF’s Manish Pant, energy has to be treated as a precious commodity in order create a potent energy strategy for India.
How relevant has energy management become at a time when several changes are happening on the technology front?
In the Indian context, energy management at the system level is still not mature. Realising this, we are now focusing on high-value consumers for whom energy is a prime source of input for their production. Thus, any saving in electricity bills helps them in substantially bringing down their production costs. With penalties in tariff, an effective energy management system can help monitor many factors like coincident peak to identify equipment contributing to CD violation and low power factor, as the total electricity bill or penalty of an industry is the sum and substance of nearly 1,000 functional units in operation.
Our aim, therefore, is to monitor all functional units and arrive at an optimum operational configuration and control, to reduce the overall energy bill for a manufacturing unit. This approach not only provides tremendous energy savings to the industry but also helps to remove the peak load from the grid. For example, a public works department’s (PWD) water pumps are presently operated from 6.00 to 9.00 in the morning, which also constitute the grid peak hours. In reality, this is no longer required because gone are the days when homes used to have only overhead tanks. Presently, all homes or apartments have lower level tanks, which can be filled during off-peak hours. We have demonstrated such solutions in many utilities and they have immensely benefitted from them.
That means you are also helping to empower customers. What are some of the ways in which you are achieving that at a time when the consumer is also being seen as “prosumer” or producer-consumer of electricity?
Correct! We provide meter reading and data analytics services for about 50,000 high-value consumers throughout India. For example, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra have about 30,000 industry consumers who contribute Rs 35,000 crore of revenue per annum. Meanwhile, there are about 40 million domestic consumers who are contributing another Rs 30,000 crore revenue per annum. So, where should one’s focus be? If we can educate those 30,000 energy consumers, who also have some generation capacity built-in, or as you said prosumers, there is tremendous potential in energy saving. Since we are already providing services, we have access to the data related to their consumption patterns. We also interact with industries at various forums and educate them on how they can benefit from effective management of energy. To give you another example, while surveying an industrial unit that was operating from 8.00 in the morning to 6.00 in the evening, we found that its load would start rising from 6.30 in the morning itself. On further analysis, we found that air-conditioning was switched early in the morning because the factory management wanted employees to be comfortable at the workplace when they started the shift. But we countered on the point – when the outside temperature was between 25 to 30 degrees, why should the workers enter a 22-degree environment? We asked them to switch on air-conditioning only around 7.30 in the morning. Today, the industrial unit is able to save 100 units daily. This is how we provide support and encourage adoption of various simple and effective measures to save energy.
You informed how your company has been active on the innovation front. Tell us something about that.
We as a company are focused on import substitutive products, which require some innovation. Let me cite one case. All generators of more than 300 megawatts require one special equipment called sub-harmonic injection system for their stator protection. A leading global player is a sole supplier to all thermal, hydro, nuclear or any other power plant of higher capacity in India. Due to certain embargo restrictions, the company refused supply sub-harmonic injection systems to nuclear power plants. During the course of our discussion with Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL), this issue was highlighted to us, and we were asked if we would like to take up this development since it is a critical piece of equipment. We took up that challenge and, within a year, completed the product and thoroughly type tested it. Today, we are ready to commission that system. In another outcome from that same project, we have also developed a health monitoring system and would be soon patenting it.
Since 2014 the federal government has laid a very strong emphasis on renewable energy. Are you also developing products for that segment?
We look at energy management as a holistic solution irrespective of whether it is for thermal, hydro or renewable sources of energy such as solar or wind. We have been working with wind farms for the porting of their data to the cloud. There are several instances when there is a good wind available for generating power but due to reasons such as an unscheduled maintenance, it does not get lifted into the gird. That is a potential loss for investors. We have looked at energy management systems for renewable energy from that point of view. So far, we have not ventured too much into solar. 
What is your outlook for the industry in the medium and long-term?
People have to stop looking at energy as an infinite source. Since there is a crisis in energy, that perception and presumption will have to be abandoned. Localised distribution, generation and consumption have to be promoted in a very big way. Many proponents of energy conservation have proposed that if the village can generate and consume their own electricity it will help them become self-sustainable. That can also be made a part of our medium to long-term planning. Unfortunately, what has so far happened is that electricity generated in rural parts of the country is fed to urban areas, with rural areas often being forced to go without adequate electric supply. Now, this is ironical. One of the things required is that be it hydro, thermal or renewable energy of wind and solar, its generation and distribution must be localised into smaller or self-contained grids. Rather than planning big investments, making smaller investments with active support from the government will perhaps go a long way in effectively planning our energy strategy in both medium and long-term.


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