In conversation with Sushil Kumar Soonee, Advisor at Power System Operation Corporation Ltd. (POSOCO) and Dr. Satish Kumar, President and Executive Director at Alliance for an Energy Efficient Economy, on the journey of transformation of the Indian power grid system.
Dr. Satish Kumar: First of all, I would like to thank you for agreeing to join us for this fireside chat. AEEE team and our member companies are excited to have you amongst us. Without further ado, let us get started.
Sir – you have spent a lifetime working on developing the unified power grid and reforming the power sector in India. In some ways, you have been the torchbearer in driving innovation in system operation and planning. In the last five years, your role has changed from the CEO to an advisor of POSOCO. We would like to hear about your experience and the journey you have taken in the Indian Power Sector.
Mr. S.K. Soonee: I worked in the power sector for 40 years and held senior-level positions for many years. I am a learner and a system operator. As you mentioned, I am glad that I could play a part in the power sector transformation. I understand that if change does not begin at the grassroots, it is tough to operate the entire system. My journey so far is not important, but what is important is that we can provide affordable and reliable electricity. There were philosophers such as Buckminster Fuller, often called the Philosopher Engineer, who thought of interconnecting the world to provide the cheapest energy to people. Fuller stated that “there is no dearth of energy, there is a dearth of ideas”- these words have influenced me all along.
After graduation, I joined the engineering services by design, not by accident, and I am continuing like that. It has been a fascinating journey! As a patriot myself, there cannot be a better opportunity than operating the Grid to ensure a continuous power supply for everyone. The importance of this was realised even more during the COVID-19 pandemic. People know that the electricity demand during the pandemic went down, but very few people appreciate that the value of electricity went up. The entire health care system was dependent on reliable power supply. People were locked up in their houses and managed to work from home. Imagine being without electricity is not just unpleasant, but it is a full stop on all economic and essential activity.
Dr. Satish Kumar: One of the most significant achievements of the power sector in India is One Nation, One Grid. How did the idea of the unified power grid come about? What were the key milestones and challenges? Please shed some light on how the idea of the unified power grid came to fruition.
Mr. S.K. Soonee: The story of a unified power grid in India is an exciting and long journey. It is important to note that the idea of a unified grid was not very popular in the initial years. In 1980, we had prepared a write-up on “a united All-India Power Grid” to present in a workshop in Goa. At that time, India had about 30-40 small grids geographically spread throughout the country. Globally the idea of a unified Grid was catching attention and other electricity markets in Europe, the United States, etc., were contemplating moving forward in that direction. This made me think, ‘why can’t we have an all-India grid?’ As expected, the idea was considered too far ahead of its time. At that time, we were ridiculed and asked, “Do you have any idea of the money and time investment required for this?”.
However, many developments have taken place since then, fortunately, in the right direction. The government resolution demarking the country into five regions, the transmission being recognised as a separate activity under the aegis of Electricity Act 2003, the formation of the Power Grid Corporation are three critical steps in the transition. Since then, India has never looked back! Integrating the regional Grid in itself was a big challenge, not just due to technological barriers. By the 1990s, we managed to integrate the small grids into the regional grids. Subsequently, massive investments were brought in for setting up transmission infrastructure for interconnection. By 2013, we achieved an all-India grid and we take pride in it. One can sense how difficult it was to construct such a mammoth grid infrastructure and bring all the states into one Grid. But, bringing together the political consensus to achieve a unified grid was another challenge. Setting unified rules and procedures for governance, accounting and settlements were more difficult as these were matters of culture. But over time, through many consultations, this was also taken care of. So far, India has performed tremendously and it is now aiming for a trans-national grid. We have expanded the Grid beyond the national limits to facilitate the cross-border electricity trade with our neighbours Bhutan, Bangladesh, and to some extent Myanmar. Now our ambition is to set up One Sun, One World, One Grid” (OSOWOG) for supplying solar power across the globe.
Dr. Satish Kumar: In the summer of 2012 (30 and 31 July 2012), India experienced the largest power outage in history that affected hundreds of millions of people. Every challenge is an opportunity, and in the case of India, the blackout was a turning point for many significant changes. The black summer of 2012 made us realise the importance of having a strong Grid. Could you please tell us how the Indian Power Sector changed after the blackout?
Mr. S.K. Soonee: The 2012 disturbance came to us as a jolt and made everyone realise that the power sector could not function like this. The government expressed commitment to forming a separate independent institution that would have no conflict of interest and only serve as a knowledge industry. That is how the POSOCO formation gradually took place. Since then, several changes have taken place in the power sector. First, the formation of the electricity market did not exist in the pre-1990s era. But now one can buy and sell electricity anywhere in the country. Second, decarbonisation of the power sector and the infusion of renewables in the energy mix have compelled us to change the systems and processes in the Grid. Recently, when grid failures occurred in the US, where there is no unified grid, the Federal Electricity Regulatory Commission (FERC) Chairman said that planning of transmission needs to change. India, fortunately, did this thing right already, which makes us more resilient. Even though there were apprehensions for India having spent too much on the Grid, today, we take pride in it.
Dr. Satish Kumar: Amid the pandemic, the resilience of our power grid was tested. During a nationwide campaign for solidarity, India experienced what could only be described as the world’s greatest behavioural demand response. The Indian Grid has shown commendable flexibility on 5th April 2020, responding to the solidarity call of switching off lights for 9 minutes at 9 PM. Within a fraction of an hour between 8:45 PM to 9:45 PM, the electricity demand decreased from 117 GW to 85 GW and then increased to 100 GW. It was a test for grid stability and a proud moment for Grid operators to have handled that. Many people are not aware of the preparations that take place behind the scenes. Could you talk more in-depth about the amazing transformation of the Indian power grid so far?
Mr. S.K. Soonee: The 9 minutes at 9 PM was a rare event, which we do not think any of the grids in the world ever did or ever would do. This is not something which we could have achieved overnight. The preparations that had gone into making the Grid stronger, making the generation flexible, having processes and systems in place, and ensuring the availability of platforms for coordination came to our rescue that day. The importance of having a strong Grid before having a smart grid was proved on that day. Also, we realised that the public does respond to clarion calls, sometimes unpredictably. The public response turned out to be more than our estimate. High degree situational awareness is crucial when we have to anticipate how the masses will behave and be prepared for all kinds of eventualities. At that time, thousands of grid operators were working together and coordinating to monitor and operate the system. They managed to line everything up meticulously in a short time, approximately 60 hours after they got after the announcement. Furthermore, the event made us realise the value and effectiveness of flexible power generation. The 9 Minutes at 9 PM experiment proved that India has good potential for demand response and understood the need to have flexibility of high order.
Moreover, this entire situation made us aware of our limitations and we need to work on them. There is no doubt that to integrate high levels of renewables power, we need to ensure the strength of our Grids and maintain flexibility across the value chain in our processes, systems, and regulations. However, this is not very easy as it complicates the settlement process. Everybody needs to be paid to their satisfaction. This is very challenging because two players might have offered grid services in two different ways. At the same time, one player would have drawn less power, while another player operated the power plant flexibly in the same situation. Ultimately, the settlement has to be a dispute-free settlement, and we should be able to clearly answer who pays what to whom. All in all, it was a challenging yet good learning experience. I think this event will remain a topic of discussion in many universities, particularly where Power System is taught.
Dr. Satish Kumar: The point you are emphasizing is that it is not just the strength or the robustness of the Grid, but the need to couple technology and innovation with the commercial settlement process. This will make the power grid unique and a key aspect to keep in mind, especially for engineers.
Moving on to my next question, as you are aware, at AEEE, we work on the demand side of things. The Indian power grid, as you mentioned, is in transition as decarbonisation of the power sector is firmly underway. Given the inherent variability of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind, how are the operators planning to maintain reliable power flow while keeping the network resilient and secure? Many coal power plants are making investments for flexible operation to operate in a highly variable grid. Do you think there is merit in considering demand flexibility as an alternative to deriving flexibility from coal, considering environmental and economic considerations?
Mr. S. K. Soonee: Climate change is a reality and India is committed to decarbonising its systems. But ours is a predominantly coal system. India needs to focus on various aspects. For instance, we need flexible hydro and pump storage, a flexible market, and flexible regulations. One can say that we need flexibilisation in the entire value chain. There is no silver bullet to this; we need policies, a plethora of regulations to put systems and procedures in place, and we need the physical system itself. As for thermal, we are now able to operate at a low load factor of 40%. India now has a real-time market where one can buy and sell every 15 minutes. While it is understood that we need flexibilisation, what is most important is that it has to be done economically. If we burn too much oil and make a thermal plant flexible, it is expensive. Emissions and cost also have to be kept in mind; that is where the challenge is and an optimal has to be found.
Dr. Satish Kumar: In July 2021, the peak electricity demand level of India touched 200 GW. In the next decade, the country will experience further increases in the coming years, along with decarbonisation of the supply side. How important is the forecasting of demand in this scenario and what do you think is the best-case scenario for India in terms of using demand as a resource?
Mr. S. K. Soonee: The electricity market is evolving rapidly. Conventionally load curves were considered to change rapidly. Now we are experiencing that change is happening very fast in demand pattern. The shape of the load is changing as the country is becoming adequate in demand-supply matching. Earlier, as we were in chronic shortage from the power supply side for decades and in the last five years, India has come out of this. Right now, we can say that the power supply is adequate, though not exactly surplus. But it is important to realise that as the demand curve’s shape has changed, the load factor has gone down. This insight is from the recent POSOCO report on the seasonal load factor from the Indian perspective. Overall, demand forecasting has become a very serious business. Hitherto, when we had a chronic shortage of generation, and the demand forecasts were never tested. But we are at an adequate stage now and have enough generation capacity. Therefore, if the load forecast is inaccurate, it will be clearly visible. Therefore, we need data scientists, artificial intelligence, pattern recognition, etc., at the discom, state, regional, and national levels.
Another observation from our load duration curve is that catering to the last 1% of peak demand is extremely expensive. This has raised the important question of whether we should keep adding capacity to meet that peak load, which is experienced for very little time. It is good to see AEEE is working in that very direction as this is a serious issue that needs further deliberation. We need to investigate the following questions – What is the value of loss of load? What would be the cost of meeting that 1% of the load? What is the best option for the operators? Yesterday, a report on demand response by USAID, BRPL, and NREL was released and it found out that 90% of people in Delhi are ready to allow their thermostats to be controlled. Indians are frugal and price-responsive people, so I think demand response is a critical topic for this decade for India. We need to shift and shape ourselves to economically meet that last 1%, which seems to have huge potential. For example, we know how to move our agriculture load. This load has been shifted from night to day time in many states. We have to align ourselves to the sun – that is how the load shape has to be changed to utilise solar electricity to the maximum, and it is doable! It needs intervention from policymakers and regulators.
It was not happening earlier because India had a chronic shortage of power supply and our philosophy for optimisation was simply maximisation. But now, the scenario is different. I am confident that there is no looking back from here. We will have demand response and energy efficiency. A variety of products will gradually come in and I think we are on the right track.
Dr. Satish Kumar: Thank you, Mr. Soonee. We know that the Indian power sector is in transition and you emphasized how the power generation, transmission, and distribution has changed over the last decade. You mentioned that we are at an adequate stage and the emphasis will shift to the demand side measures required to satisfy the last 1%. The demand side industry needs to position itself to the new and exciting reality.
On behalf of AEEE, I thank you for your presence and the remarks and insights you provided in our discussion today. It has indeed been very enriching to hear from you!
You can also watch the full conversation between Sushil Kumar Soonee and Dr. Satish Kumar here: