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BW Businessworld

What's In Store For Grids?

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23 billion dollars! This will be the estimated cost of electricity distribution losses in India by 2014. The improvements that our electricity distribution grids need to put in — administrative and technological— cannot be underestimated. Elsewhere on our grids, problems like congestion persist. As the appetite of the country to consume more electricity increases and the trend for interstate open access increases, there will be increased pressure on our grid infrastructure in future.

There will be new challenges to which the electricity grids in future will have to live up. India aspires to generate a sixth of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. Major renewable energy sources like wind power generates infirm power and therefore introduces variations in the electricity grid. Currently, since the generation of electricity from renewable sources, primarily wind energy is very low- around 5 per cent therefore it poses no challenge. But in future when this share increases, it will gradually start posing challenges of grid management.

And I must also mention some other possible scenarios which can further pose more challenges to our grid infrastructure- Electric Cars. If electric cars do penetrate sizably by the end of the next decade they will require our grid to be even smarter. India has announced a policy mission for electric cars.

All these challenges not only require more investments into our electricity grid, to add more capacity but more importantly we need to make this capacity 'smart'. Smart grid is currently a term used to describe a number of new features that are being envisaged in future grids to cope up with the various future challenges.
Yet it is important to see in one new interesting way in which the grids of future may transform- energy storage. The grids currently do not store energy through their networks. Power storage currently is a very costly option and it makes little sense for power storage, as both the losses involved in the power storage and the capital cost of power storage is significant.
But can the bets that are currently placed on innovations in power storage technology change that? If breakthrough storage technologies emerge then yes and the dice is probably loaded for that outcome. A majority of cleantech industry believes that battery is perhaps the most important opportunity area based on a recent survey. From thin film batteries to next generation batteries. All those early signs of progress are out there already. In that case the grids of future will not only transmit power but they will also store power intermittently or provide extensive interface to power storage devices.

Advances in the energy storage technology will advance many other clean technologies like electric vehicles and even allow renewable energy sources to supply energy more reliably. But what that will do to our grid is even more exciting. It is very likely that new grid management technologies that store power within the distribution networks will come up. This will allow distribution companies great flexibility in power distribution. For example it is possible that distribution companies may draw power during the afternoon slot and store the power within their distribution grid.

During the peak power timings at night, this power can be used for local consumption. Infact electric cars in this case would become a part of the solution. People who could charge their electric vehicles during the off peak hours can plug in their cars into the local grid during the peak time and provide electricity locally. This would not even require the distribution networks to invest any capital in energy storage. Perhaps they can elicit such a response by a properly structured incentive plan.
How this game will be played at the distribution transmission networks level will decide how the higher capacity intrastate and interstate transmission networks will transform. If the distribution networks smarten up significantly, they can interact intelligently with the intrastate or interstate networks to curtail their own demand or flexibly reschedule their power requirements to mitigate congestion. It will open up an altogether new space for flexible power transmission. It will also make interstate open access easier to manage.

To what extent will storage become a part of transmission networks will be determined by what extent will the new energy storage technologies are better than the current technology. Transmission networks transmit large quantum of electricity and therefore this volume cannot be stored which is why batteries become useful and economical only at the user end where the volume of energy under consideration is small. If the battery technology cost reduction is moderate than battery technology will be restricted to the user end of the grid. But if the cost reduces phenomenally then the storage units will move up higher in the grid where the quantum of electricity flow is more and require higher capacities of storage. But anyways even if the distribution networks close to the user can bring in the feature of energy storage into the play, the ripple effect of that through the higher capacity networks will be quite useful.  That will not only make grid management easier, power transmission more reliable but also at the level of an individual will open up space for a number of ways in which we will consume electricity.

Yash Saxena is a sustainability consultant with Emergent Ventures, a climate change mitigating consultancy. He also works on innovation evangelism with Techpedia