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IEEE: The expertise to make smart grid a reality

Interview with Srikanth Chandrasekaran

Srikanth Chandrasekaran (Sri Chandra) is IEEE Standard Association's Senior Regional Program Manager for India. In this role, he drives all standards-related initiatives and programs in India. Recently, Sri has been promoting standards development activities through focus groups on technical topics such as smart grid, cloud computing, and telecommunications.

In this interview, Sri Chandra discusses the present state of the electric power grid in India, the country's Smart Grid initiatives and why the role of developing nations has critical importance in creating standards that are truly global in nature.

Question: What is the state of the power engineering profession in India?

There are plenty of power engineers in India but the profession is changing in significant ways. In the past, a young power engineer's professional focus might have been on working for a regional utility or to leave India to work for a major foreign company. Now I see a shift in interest among power engineers – and EEs in general – toward entrepreneurial careers. Multinational companies also have a new perspective in that they are now setting up R&D and other operations inside India. I believe both of these developments are positive for both the profession and the engineers themselves.

Question: How does India at-large and the engineering community in particular perceive standards development and what do you see as your primary challenge?

Although there is no shortage of engineers, the total population of EEs does not translate proportionally into the number working on standards development. Engineers are not really aware of the importance of global standards. It is up to individual engineers to make a personal decision to participate. If India wants to compete in the global economy it must be involved with standards development. Otherwise, important concerns specific to India will not be addressed. Participating in a committee or workgroup is a great opportunity for younger engineers because it gives them an opportunity to meet the leading experts in their field and to develop the crucial soft skill of interacting in group decision making. My primary mission across the board is to try to have India participate more in the global standards-making community.

Question: Could you summarize the maturity of India's Smart Grid initiatives?

India's Smart Grid is very nascent today. The initiative itself is about a year old and various programs are being implemented by the government and the private sector. While there is a clear consensus that the Smart Grid is the way to go when deploying a sophisticated national power grid, we are still in a very early phase. I should add, however, that India's power grid today is very diverse. In the areas around technology campuses it is sophisticated and robust. In the rural areas it can be non-existent – 30% of India's population does not have electric power service. In other areas, there are pockets that are off-grid where power is generated by solar energy. Tying these pieces together into a national grid is a tremendous challenge – but one that should be viewed as a great opportunity to make a quantum leap in improving the lives of the people.

Question: How is India strategically approaching Smart Grid realization?

There are two key forums in India. The first is the Smart Grid Task Force led by Sam Pitroda (Satyanarayan Gangaram Pitroda) who reports directly to the prime minister. Sam Pitroda is a very highly regarded technology leader in India. In a very similar role, he led India's telecom revolution in the late 1990s. Now Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has tasked him with Smart Grid strategy.

The other initiative is the Smart Grid Forum. It's a public/private initiative composed of representatives from utilities, state and federal governments and a number of players from traditional industry segments such as manufacturing and distribution. But – very importantly from my perspective – it also includes major players in IT and communications such as Oracle, SAP, Cisco Systems as wells as economic players. The forum's first goal was to create eight working groups for different aspects of Smart Grid technology, including generation, transmission, distribution, communications, metering etc. IEEE is an associate member of the forum and we are trying to help them from a standards perspective.

Question: How is the initiative proceeding in terms of proof of concept or other projects?

The Smart Grid Forum has initiated eight pilot projects. The first was approved a few months ago for the region of Puducherry (earlier known as Pondicherry). The project's focus will be on implementing an Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI). It has been estimated that AMI can reduce power losses from 22.6% to 8%, which will be significant in terms of energy savings for power-scarce country like India. In addition, aggregate technical and commercial (AT&C) losses are a real problem for Indian utilities and the AMI project will point the way toward a solution – as well as improve accounting efficiency. These pilot projects, by the way, are essentially driven by the utilities

Question: When you say "utilities" are you referring to the same type of entities as they are in the U.S.?

Yes, in most ways Indian utilities are very similar. One key difference, however, is ownership. In India the utilities are owned and operated by each territory (or state) and although there is a national grid system in concept, the federal government does not tell the state utilities what to do or not to do. On the other hand, there is also a National Electricity Board that controls transmission and distribution. Private players are coming into the picture but still most of the responsibility lies with the state electricity boards. India is moving toward a national grid system with four major regional components. As one might imagine, there are vastly different levels of technology deployment from state to state. The fact that there is no central directorate to govern the regional utilities poses a number of challenges. At this point, when India's national grid is in the early stages of being created, it is important to have a certain amount of decentralization.

Question: How critical is standards development participation to India's Smart Grid program?

It's very important. Scalability, for example, is extremely key for India to have included in any global standard related to the Smart Grid. In Smart Grid communications networks, for example, it must be possible to move from 3G to LTE or from 3G to WiMAX without interrupting your efforts. But there are other issues as well. In India, cost must be kept in check for any design because more than 80% of the population is very poor and the power infrastructure that serves them is very primitive. From the smart meter perspective, for example, India should make sure that the meter's technological sophistication matches up with its actual use – and it should be affordable. India can keep the cost low by using local raw materials and manufacturing in India and by adopting standards. In other words, India needs a smart meter option that meets global standards but doesn't have a lot of unusable features – and that calls for a scalable approach when a workgroup is creating the standard. The Smart Grid Forum is providing feedback to the federal government on the features that are essential in a smart metering deployment in India.

Question: Are there other aspects of global standards-making that should be on India's radar?

The quality of power generated in urban and rural areas is not that dependable. India has experienced situations in which equipment from European manufacturers does not work as it should even though it complies with IEC standards. The reason of this is that India's power quality – the average power factor in rural areas, for example – can be quite variable. This is another reason for India to participate in standards development. If our goal is to make standards that are truly global we have to include the needs of the largest segments on the world's population – and this population resides not just in India. In order for this to happen, it is essential for more Indian engineers to participate in standards development.

Question: We've talked a lot about the disadvantages caused by the nascent state of India's power system. Are there ways in which India can turn this to an advantage?

There are times when a modern technology deployment is actually "easier" because there is very little legacy equipment to be deal with – to wait for it to depreciate, for example – and because there is a broad consensus that Smart Grid deployment is the right thing to do as quickly as possible. Lacking a telecommunications infrastructure was actually very helpful for India in making its telecom revolution a reality. There are also a lot of engineers of all types in India. So mastering the interplay between power, communication and IT is a challenge in which India can definitely contribute to the leading group of countries that are developing smart grid technologies.

Before joining IEEE SA's staff, Sri Chandra worked for 17 years in the Technology Solutions Organization of Freescale Semiconductors (formerly Motorola Inc.) where his primary focus was on the development of the internal tools and methodologies used by hardware designers. For 10 years, Sri was active in standardization efforts involving the creation of a technical analog/mixed-signal software language for engineers who design semiconductors.