The Indian power sector is at a crossroad. It is looking to surge ahead. This can be possible with the right kind of institutional support extended to private players who have brought in a sense of vitality in the power sector. Power, being one of the key inputs to infrastructural development, in integrally linked to the process of nation-building.
BE’s Saptarshi Deb spoke to Somesh Dasgupta, the Whole-time Director and the Corporate Compliance Responsibility Officer at India Power Corporation Limited, having over three decades of experience in the power andutility sector.
Q) Please take us through your distribution journey.
A) As of today, we have 798 square kms of distribution area and our company has been in operation since 1935. Initially the distribution model was aimed at the coal mines and industries, which later expanded to cater to the needs of the railways and the commercial market and eventually, we also ventured to address the needs of the low tension (LT) domestic segment. According to the 10th Annual Integrated Ratings & Rankings for Indian State & Private DISCOMs done by McKinsey and published by the Ministry of Power, Government of India, we are the best power utility in our state (West Bengal) and the 10th best in India.
Q) Please explain how you have been successful in maintaining one of the lowest T&D losses in the country?
A) This has been a significant achievement. Firstly, I should make it clear that a 3% T&D loss cannot be attributed to any of the T&D loss contributors and it is purely technical and unavoidable.
To achieve this, we have been continuously upgrading our technical side. Firstly, we have ensured that only the best quality of wire and conductors are used in our distribution system – which pulls down of T&D losses. Secondly, we have focused on network management with accentuated attention on segregation to reduce transmission losses. Thirdly, we are in a process of continuous analysis and evaluation of our feeder points. We have successfully revisited feeder points that had high electrical load and reworked our network system to keep our T&D losses in check. Fourthly, the voltage has been upgraded to ensure lower transmission losses. We now operate between the 220 V to 132 KV bandwidth. We have also worked to reduce our magnetic field induced losses by delinking non-needed transformers in our distribution network. Lastly, we have ensured continuous jumper scanning and management to reduce T&D losses.
On the commercial side, it must first be mentioned that between 2019 and 2023, we have ensured 113% rise our LT distribution, added more than 100kms of LT lines and increased the number of our transformers from 72 to 442. Despite such a huge jump, our T&D losses have remained flat. This has been achieved because in the last mile connectivity, we have only used AB conductors or underground cables which has eliminated the chance of power theft. We have also added many distribution boxes which aid us in maintenance and helps in monitoring tampering. We have ensured that all our LT transformers are in optimalisation - operating on a maximum load of 60% to keep T&D losses in check. Additionally, our smart meters as well as the pre-paid meters, GIS based system management and centralized control room based operational structure has aided in reduced T&D losses. We have successfully linked our payment system to internet-based payment gateways, thereby ensuring ease of payment, which has ensured that our revenue collection remain very high.
Q) There is some talk over decommissioning old thermal power plants to encourage faster switch to renewal energy. Is that the correct way forward?
A) Yes, it is a good proposal but can it be implemented without a knee-jerk reaction in the power sector. As of today, still 80% of the Indian power sector is dependent on thermal production. The renewable sector in India is yet to attain efficiency in providing round the clock power.
Technically, a thermal power plant has a lifespan of around 30 years and as things stand in India, total decommissioning of many thermal power plants is not feasible. Here it must be added that we have recently signed an agreement with E2S Power, a Switzerland based company to provide renewable solutions to thermal power assets, transforming them to clean energy storage facilities.
Most of the pollution from thermal power plants is created upstream wherein coal or gas is used to fire up the boilers to create steam which in turn is released with immense pressure to turn the turbines which create energy. In this model, most of the engineering is kept intact and instead of coal or gas, high power aluminum batteries are used to provide the heat which creates steam in the boilers. These batteries store power and recharged through renewable energy. In this way, instead of total decommissioning, most of the infrastructure of a thermal power plant can be used in a more environment friendly way.
Q) How has been your experience in the renewal energy space?
A) Anyone in the power sector will admit that the future is renewable energy and the Indian renewal energy sector has huge potential. In India, the renewal sector is more favoured towards solar, with nearly 70% market penetration. However, the problem in this sector is its inability to provide round the clock power as storage is the biggest challenge.
As far as IPCL is concerned, out of its total 230KV, 100 KV is bought from Solar Energy Corporation of India Ltd (SECI). However, this power is not categorised as round the clock. We have recently entered into another agreement with SECI to provide another 100KV of round the clock power to our company. When that is executed, most of our energy will from renewable sources.
IPCL also has a separate wing that deals in renewable energy. Under it, we produce 35.2MV wind energy in the states of Gujarat and Karnataka and 36 MV of solar energy in Uttarakhand and 2MV in Asansol, West Bengal. For the next three years, we are looking to ramp up our solar energy operations, aiming to produce at least 300 MV solar energy.
Q) Digital transformation is the next big thing in the power sector. Where does IPCL stand in that regard?
A) IPCL has transformed itself into a digital organisation. IPCL continues its adoption of smart meters which are being added and replaced in Asansol. Additionally, we are using the Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system, a category of software applications for controlling industrial processes, which is the gathering of data in real time from remote locations in order to control equipment and conditions, a GIS equipped sub-station, digital payment linkage, smart metering with artificial intelligence and we have equipped our organisation with SAP. Taking our logistical expertise one step ahead, we have secured a contract to install, operate and maintain 3.5 lakh smart meters in the cities of Ujjain and Indore. Additionally, we are in the final stages of confirming another similar deal to install, operate and maintain 10 lakh smart meters in Bhopal.
Q) Regarding production inputs, how has been your recent experience with the price, quality, and availability of coal?
A) We now operate a 450 MW thermal generation plant in Haldia, West Bengal and supply 300 MW to WBSEDCL and another 12 MW plant in Asansol. The coal needed for our plants is obtained through long term Fuel Supply Agreement with Coal India. As far as the issue of coal is concerned, the quality is of Indian coal is improving. However, since the Covid-19 pandemic, the price of imported coal has increased manifold – making import of coal a commercially infeasible choice. As far as availability is concerned, India is a coal rich country and Coal India is presently using only 60% of its reserves owing to environmental restrictions.
Q) Do you think the existing policies in India are conducive for private players in the power sector? Would you suggest any policy level changes?
A) As far as the power generation segment is concerned, my answer will be positive. As things stand, nearly 70% of power generating companies are Independent Power Producers (IPPs). However, the situation for the distribution segment is far from perfect. The prevailing Electricity Act 2003 has stated that its looks to promote competition in the discom business. However, its present provisions do not ensure such development. Apart from the area serviced by our company in Asansol, West Bengal, there is no example of competition in distribution. In our area of operation, due to various government policies and historical developments, two other companies namely DVC and WBSEDCL also provide power competitively.
However, a new amendment to the Electricity Act may ensure carriage and carrier functions for separate companies using the existing distribution network of another company. However, this amendment is being heavily challenged by various stakeholders as this development may be disruptive – setting in motion a series of changes that may transform the power sector.
Q) How does your company ensure sustainability and promote social development?
A) This is something quite close to my heart. See, for us in IPCL, social sustainability is equivalent to business sustainability. You see, I strongly believe that for a power providing company to be successful, a strong public interface is required. This is how we approach Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). As we operate in a competitive setup, competing with two public distribution companies, CSR is our survival mechanism – linking us closely to our customers and stakeholders and allowing us to make meaningful social impact. Most of our CSR funds are used through projects implemented internally as we do not believe in outsourcing our responsibility to the society. We are deeply involved in women, empowerment,education, environment protection, providing rural infrastructure, child development and promotion of cultural heritage. Notably, we provide 10 yearly scholarships to economically marginalised female students who have done well in their secondary examinations and support them till them complete their senior secondary examinations. We have recently worked with Asansol police, installing CCTV cameras in various crime prone areas. We have also involved ourselves in promoting health and hygiene, by working with women in promoting menstrual hygiene and have also developed toilets in various schools in and around Asansol.