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Universal electricity access in India: Leveraging modern information technology solutions

Background

Almost all census villages in India are on the verge of achieving victory over darkness. The Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana (DDUGJY) - the flagship program for rural electrification is under implementation in the less than 3000 inhabited census villages that are currently un-electrified. The status of the village and household electrification is already being reported to the citizens through the Gramin Vidyutikaran (GARV) application. On September 25, 2017, the government went a step ahead and announced the Pradhan Mantri Sahaj Bijli Har Ghar Yojana "Saubhagya" scheme - a separate flagship program for provisioning electricity connection to all households by the end of December 2018. The Saubhagya scheme shall leverage both the centralized grid and the off-grid based solutions for translating the 2018 vision of household electrification into a reality.

The success of DDUGJY and Saubhagya scheme will signify universal village electrification and the availability of electricity connection across all households. In other words, it will signify availability of electricity infrastructure in the village alongside household's connectivity to any nearest electricity distribution pole. Immediately after the announcement of the Saubhagya Scheme, in a series of opinion pieces, published online and elsewhere, key challenges and opportunities in achieving the targets of the scheme, were expressed by sector experts and researchers. This article focusses on the prospects of integration of universal electricity service delivery system and the information technology (IT) systems. The aspects presented in this article do not constitute an exhaustive list of areas where IT can be leveraged. Yet, an attempt has been made to outline a few low hanging fruits that can be tapped.

The data sources

For the realization of the universal electricity access goal, it is indispensable to examine household electricity targets in terms of the actual service delivery and look beyond physical connectivity. In order to develop a better understanding of the actual status of service delivery, the distribution companies can leverage some of the most basic and commonly available rural feeder level data points that are collected and internally reported by a majority of them, at regular intervals. For example, the availability of single phase and three phase connections in any particular region can be leveraged to understand the possible usage of electricity service in any village/hamlet/cluster of villages. Similarly, for determining the reliability of electricity supply, consistency in the schedule of supply will pronounce timeliness, and that whether rural households can actually depend on electricity for essential domestic chores on regular basis or not. Further, for interruptions, the number of hours of scheduled, transient trips and un-scheduled power disruptions, and duration of each interruption must be reported. In addition, for the below poverty line (BPL) households, distribution company's adherence to minimum service benchmarks, will ensure whether poor people have actually received a minimum number of units of electricity supply as recommended by the respective state electricity regulatory commission.

The adequacy of rural electricity distribution infrastructure can be understood by estimating the carrying capacity of installed infrastructure and the existing and projected demand from villages that are connected to any particular rural feeder. In practice, not all feeders are catering only to rural villages. Hence, to determine the adequacy of infrastructure, data pertaining to distribution transformer capacity and connection types for a statistically significant number of randomly selected villages, within the territory of each distribution company, can be examined. Further, the gap, if any, between a number of units of electricity billed and the revenue collected during any billing cycle will put light on the issues related to collection efficiency. Also, there is often a lag between income cycles of the BPL households and the billing cycle. So, smarter and innovative mechanisms have to be introduced to address this issue. The government has already provisioned bill collection by deploying agents who collect bill by visiting households at last mile. Going a step further, in order to provide more number of options, prepaid scratch cards and coupons can be made available through mobile phone retailers which households in remote areas can use to pay their electricity bill. The payment pattern of consumers will reveal information on their ability to pay and whether there is a need for a re-look into electricity tariff and relevant policy measures such as livelihoods creation.

Distribution companies in certain states have territories that are spread across several villages which themselves are often very dispersed. However, any distribution company has limited number of maintenance staff. Hence, reporting on the lag, if any, between distribution transformer failure and its replacement/recovery along with the gap between receipt of maintenance request and its redressal, for randomly identified and statistically significant number of rural feeders, will outline issues related to maintenance. This will incite need for the design of practical solutions that bring relief to both - the distribution company staff and the household consumers.

Further, to promote solar technology in rural and peri-urban areas, user-friendly multi-lingual mobile applications/software tools can be rolled out and/or existing systems can be promoted to help end-users in doing the cost-benefit analysis for off-grid solar solutions for basic and productive uses.

Big data analytics and opportunities

A broader assessment of rural household electrification based on the criteria of reliability, accessibility, affordability, actual availability, and consumption is necessary to formulate effective policies and undertake accompanying actions that are reflective of the localized electricity demand of the rural households and which leads to actual delivery of electricity supply that has utility. The Government of India is ushering implementation of the "Bharat Net" scheme which will augment access to high-speed broadband at Panchayat levels in rural areas. Modern day information technology (IT) infrastructure presents unprecedented opportunities for the rural electricity sector. The existing GARV application can be used as a platform for reporting on actual electricity service delivery by adding additional features and reports that leverage the aforementioned data sources.

In doing so, big data analytics tools and techniques can be used to make predictions, and analyze humongous amounts of datasets that already exist and generate on a regular basis. For example, data science can be leveraged to design tools which aid in the preventive maintenance of infrastructure such as the distribution transformer. The capability of drones can be explored in difficult terrains for aerial monitoring of supply and transmission lines during any season of the year. Additionally, the implementation of IT-based pay-as-you-go models, which at present is led by the social enterprises in India, can be scaled-up for households that lack upfront cash and wish to own a solar home lighting system. In doing so, and for identifying apt locations and households, spatial analytics and data analytics based solutions can be developed. Further, prescriptive analytics linked dashboards can enable the government and private sector enterprises in identifying a cluster of villages that receive poor electricity supply and where off-grid/ decentralized solutions will make a business case. At locations, where livelihoods related programs of the government are being implemented, data analytics can be utilized to analyze the payment pattern of end-users and to ascertain whether livelihoods program has enabled the households to pay for electricity services or not. Also, analytics can be used to enhance the accuracy of demand forecasts that are undertaken to plan for power generation, eventually leading to better plant load factor(PLF). The Urja Jyoti Abhiyaan dashboard of the Ministry of Power informs urban consumers on a range of aspects - Consumer complaints, pending connections, and average number /duration of power cuts. Similar aspects can be reported for rural areas for specific sub-stations, and the data can be leveraged by data scientists to aid better planning of resources. The government is also about to roll-out the deployment of smart meters in states of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, as part of the National Smart Grid Mission. The data generated from the scheme will enable data scientists to derive newer insights from real-time consumption patterns. Certainly, big data analytics presents a huge opportunity for the electricity sector.

The way forward

During the recently held edition of Global Science, Technology and Innovation Conference (G-STIC), organized by VITO, ACTS, AIT, IIT Delhi and TERI, in Brussels, experts deliberated upon innovative solutions such as the swarm electrification, and smart microgrids, which may change the facets of the future electricity distribution systems and emerging service delivery norms. Globally, the advancement in smart IT-based systems is believed to be a disrupter in the electricity sector. Experts also believe that the electricity sector is now transitioning from a supply-oriented business to a services-oriented business, where the quality of services and the actual utility of power is more important than the physical infrastructure and source of power generation. In this quest, IT will provide the power of disruption. Application of modern approaches for reporting, assessment, and delivery of electricity services will bring a new paradigm to India's stride for universal electricity access.

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