Let’s Use ICT Effectively to Implement Smart Grids in Asia and the Pacific

Electrical substation with ‘smart’ features in Bangladesh.
Electrical substation with ‘smart’ features in Bangladesh.

By Arun Ramamurthy

Information and communications technology can improve the efficiency of energy operations in Asia, where the sector is dominated by state-owned enterprises.

The energy sector is undergoing massive changes to address climate change and improve the efficiency of its operations. We are seeing large-scale smart grid projects in developed nations. But in Asia and the Pacific, where energy operations are still largely dominated by state-owned enterprises (SOEs), the adoption of smart grids requires new ways of implementing and managing them.

According to ADB’s Energy Outlook 2013, electricity demand in the region is projected to more than double between 2010 and 2035, reaching 16,169.2 terawatt-hours in 2035. This requires energy generation, transmission and distribution processes to adopt climate-smart initiatives and more efficient ways of balancing the demand and supply requirements of energy services.

Information and communications technology (ICT) plays a pivotal role in improving efficiency of energy sector operations. For example, a smart grid pilot project in Puducherry, India, uses sensor-embedded transformers with ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) technology to monitor real-time energy use, alerting command centers when unusual usage spikes are noted. Maintenance crews then act upon the alerts in a timely manner to check for possible energy theft and arrest revenue loss, as well as the overall reliability of energy distribution systems. In the UK, Scotland Yard hopes to automatically analyze spikes in electricity usage that could be caused by production of Class B drugs on housing estates and in industrial areas.

Real-time gathering of data and automated decisions are key features in modern transmission systems to handle tripping problems in smart grids. An entire ICT ecosystem is deployed to efficiently manage the mixing of different clean energy sources into the grid and in consumption points, using automated metering in ‘smart’ homes.

These ‘smart’ ways of applying ICT to the energy sector are essential to improve the productivity of the value chain, enhance the reliability of energy operations, boost energy security, minimize losses, and optimize resources. In South Asia, for instance, distribution loss hovers in the range of 20-30%. Efforts to enhance the reliability and energy security of large regional interconnection projects are already being implemented in South Asia and Southeast Asia, like the ASEAN Power Grid.

According to a Transparency Market Research report, the global smart grid market is predicted to reach $118.1 billion by 2019. ABI Research states that 36% of investments in 102 smart cities globally have been spent on enabling smart grids. IDC Energy Insights forecasts that worldwide spending on smart grid specialty hardware, IT hardware, software and services will grow to $40.6 billion by 2017. Cisco predicts 50 billion new connections will be made using IoT over the next decade.

To effectively cope with the huge demand, we need to adopt new ICT approaches to smart grid implementation. This in turn will require affordable Internet access enabled through technologies like Zigbee networks, Wi-Fi or TV white space, etc. Widespread adoption of cloud technology will help in optimizing ICT infrastructure resources employed in control centers.

The Pacific Gas and Electric Company in the US is using a distribution control center equipped with systems that support smart grid technology and future upgrades in a centralized manner. Its distribution management system incorporates advanced electronic mapping and smart meter data to help operators manage exact location of an outage. Operators can also perform repairs and maintenance remotely with automated ‘self-healing; switches deployed on electric circuits throughout California’s Central Valley. These smart switches isolate outages and automatically reroute the flow of electricity to minimize the number of customers affected by an outage. Even smartphones are increasingly being used to remotely manage electrical functions in smart grid implementation.

Massive ‘ITfication’ also poses cybersecurity and data privacy risks. We need to overcome issues such as faster technological obsolescence, digital literacy, and the digital divide. The ICT sector is seeing a large influx of start-up entrepreneurial activities, which offers both opportunities and threats to smart grid projects.

SOEs in developing Asia have the greatest challenge when adopting these new technological solutions. SOEs need to ramp up ICT infrastructure, ICT skills and its business processes to implement smart grids. But how? We need to change our mindset from treating smart grid initiatives as pure energy sector implementation, to a blended sector activity. The complexities of ICT elements in smart grids deserve a dedicated professional treatment, as these two major economic sectors are interacting and the convergence of the electric grid and the Internet is inevitable.