A new electricity order in making

Forecast the energy future and define a road map

The electricity segment has seen certain shifts-many imperceptible-in the last few years. Changes have been happening in the way electricity is being generated, supplied and consumed. Renewable sources, for example, now assume a larger role than before, and make up about 12% of the total electrical installed capacity and contribute more than 5% to total electricity generation.

The renewable segment has growing numbers of off-grid and distributed generation systems. On the transmission and distribution front, new and smarter technologies are being introduced. On the utilisation side, the focus is on more efficient appliances and vehicles; recently India unveiled its National Electrical Mobility Master Plan 2020, aiming for seven million electric and hybrid vehicles by 2020.

Such fundamental changes are going to occur faster in the future as we move towards a 'plug-in' society. The drivers of these shifts range from ever-increasing demand-supply gap to enhancing energy access for the rural population; from energy security concerns to climate change mitigation. But the desired outcomes would come about only if the country moves away from conventional ways of doing things and gather fresh perspectives.

Be it wind/solar feeding in large amounts of electricity to the grid, or mass adoption of humble solar lantern or superior electric vehicles, their viability and adoption would depend on efficient and cost-effective energy storage elements. Today energy storage is being viewed from two different perspectives.

First, storage integrated with generation plants to aid supply even during periods when solar/wind resource is unavailable and for short-duration smoothing of supply. Second, dynamic storages are needed at the system level for balancing purposes and meeting challenges stemming from extensive penetration of intermittent renewable resources.

In fact, it is envisaged that in the future, electrical vehicles would also act as large banks of energy storage: they can store electricity during non-peak hours.

The other key element of the future energy network will be the 'network' or the 'grids' themselves 'smarter' electrical grids and 'intelligent' networks. What is envisaged is a fully converged system wherein each device and appliance is communicating with each other and with the network. This also means real time data acquisition and analysis at a desegregated level.

This scenario calls for forward looking planning with fresh perspectives. If wind and solar are seen as unfriendly sources today, in an intelligently optimised networked future, they will have fewer 'drawbacks'. These networks would leverage the complementarities among different energy resources and geographic regions.

Also, as opposed to electrification through extension of centralised grids, the role of decentralised mini-grids would become crucial. The smart energy network could then comprise centralised grids with a number of decentralised mini-grids embedded in to it.

To keep pace with the changing scenario, instead of moving one step at a time on the technology ladder, many steps are to be taken in parallel. A long-term forecasting of the technological needs of the energy future and a defined road map are essential.

Today, though the need for cost efficient storage solutions to match rising renewable penetration is known, no developmental road map exists for it. What is required is to take a systemic approach wherein all the components and sub-components of energy future are evaluated to identify the gaps. This requires a multi-disciplinary and multi-institutional approach, with research community, industry, utilities and governments working together on time-bound projects. It is also important to focus on system-level monitoring and capacity building/retraining of engineers and operators. Perhaps, it is time to initiate this endeavour in a mission mode.