Bringing electricity to rural areas that never may see the grid is a great boon to both people’s quality of life and the region’s economy. Smart Grid Technology or Renewable Microgrid is the topic of this discussion to improve operational and business efficiency of Indian Power Utilities.Grampower, a energy technology company is working on addressing the electrification challenges in India.pManifold recently spoke to Mr. Yashraj Khaitan, Co-founder and CEO of Grampower. The company sets up energy efficient Smart Microgrids in remote areas to provide on-demand, reliable electricity to telecom towers and rural households with an affordable prepaid purchase model. He has been instrumental in raising over USD1.7 million for the company, and leads product and business development and partnership building to scale the company’s operations.The below shared are the author’s personal views and not to be associated with any of his company’s and other associations.
Q1) What is one typical micro grid size/ investment/ returns: # of connections, brief equipment specs, investments, ROI, Payback?
- A microgrid in an off grid area that is capitally and operationally viable must be 10 kW and above with about 50% of it’s generation capacity dedicated towards guaranteed daytime loads such as telecom towers, shops, cold storages, cottage industries, schools, etc. The remaining 50% needs to be targeted towards domestic loads to provide ‘lifeline power supply’ to consumers during the night. Typically 80-100 families can be served in this configuration and the payback lies between 4-5 years.
- Equipment specs – On the generation side, we use crystalline solar panels and inverters with maximum power point tracking controllers to maximize power drawn from the solar panels. The storage used is tubular lead acid batteries. The distribution infrastructure is setup by us and comprises cement poles and insulated aluminum cabling till the household level. Each household is given Gram Power’s proprietary Smart Prepaid Meter that we are able to control remotely. These meters ensure 100% payment collection, make consumers aware of their power consumption and allow them to control their monthly expenses, and enable to Gram Power to identify and eliminate any form of meter or distribution line tampering for power theft. Typical, solar generation infrastructure including solar panels, inverters, batteries, structures, etc. is about 60% of system cost. 20% is the smart grid infrastructure including meters, communication, remote monitoring, and payment system. Balance 20% is installation and commissioning expenses.
- Micro-grids that need to be setup for small hamlets that don’t have much commercial load can be made operationally viable with Gram Power’s Smart Distribution System. Hence for such villages, we work with the State and Central Governments to fund the capital cost of the system. The prepaid meters, theft detection systems, and our payment model ensures that enough revenue is collected so as to keep the plant running for 25 years, i.e., the lifetime of the solar panels.
- The long term solution however, is grid connected microgrids, which is what we are focusing on now.
Q2) What changes you request to bring scale-up of Generation tied Distribution systems in India – customer behavior, Grid sharing & Tariff regulations, others?
- Customer behavior will change in the following ways, as already demonstrated in our systems:
- They will become energy conscious as the meters inform them of their rates of consumption
- Power consumption will reduce as consumers pay for every unit that is metered
- This reduction in consumption essentially increases the amount of power available for the DISCOM to sell to industries where revenue is higher
- I believe the following model should be supported to promote intelligent and sustainable rural electrification:
- DISCOMs setup DFs in a PPP mode for villages or entire feeders that have over 40% commercial losses and where power supply is erratic
- The DISCOM and DF jointly fund the replacement of energy meters with Smart Prepaid Meters and theft detection systems in the grid
- The DISCOM will sell power to the DF at an agreed bulk tariff and the DF will sell power to the consumer at the regulated tariff through multiple retail outlets in the village just as cell phone recharge is sold
- DF should have the permission that power supply is automatically disconnected to households that tamper the meter or distribution lines or run out of credit
- Those companies should be selected as DF who are willing to invest in setting up locally installed renewable generation in the village to supplement grid supply and make power supply more reliable
- The DISCOM will charge the DF for all power consumed at a single point
Q3) What realised efficiency can Micro grids bring to Indian Discoms? What good and immediate market opportunities you see in this space, in addition to rural?
- A Gram Power Smart Microgrid with solar generation and battery storage for a village of 100 homes is only 30% of the cost of extending the national grid by 15 km. We have demonstrated 100% payment collection and 0% power theft in our systems. Hence the realizable efficiency for DISCOMs in areas where our distribution technology is used on the national grid, can be easily estimated based on what losses DISCOMs are incurring today.
- For microgrids, I see the following tappable markets:
- Remote hamlets funded through DDG schemes
- Urban colonies being privately constructed should have a requirement for have a microgrid to meet its power needs when grid is not available. When grid is available, the microgrid can supplement supply for peak load management
- Important commercial buildings like airports, data centers, hospitals, etc. should be supported by microgrids
- Speaking long term, microgrids are the most effective way to combat cyber attacks on our electricity grid. The US is moving ahead in this direction too.
Q4) What unique about Gram power developed Pre-paid smart meters? (Share info on technology, communication protocol, s/w analytics, and field results against some of known challenges with such meter deployment). How does it benchmark with other similar meters in market?
- Our meter has been developed keeping in mind the end consumer and application. Not as per what existing meters do or standards they comply with. We’re able to do the following with it:
- Implement a prepaid payment model that does not require internet access for each and every home and that can be easily managed by low skilled local entrepreneurs
- Provide real time consumption information for each meter with up to 30s intervals in a very reliable manner. We are able to do this because of our proprietary protocol that is light and takes into consideration the village geography and erratic connectivity
- Automatically create an intelligent local wireless communication network that identifies and stops any kind of meter or distribution line tampering
- Automatically operate different loads in the area based on their priorities. For example, in a grid-connected microgrid setting, we can program into our meters that when grid supply is not available and there is limited generation, then only the most important loads in the village must be operational
- With our hardware and software, we provide an end-to-end solution for last mile power distribution management.
Q5) What economics and benefits of your company’s pre-paid meters to lets say a 1Lac customer base private utility for assume 100% adoption? Can you add how current pricing slabs for different consumer categories in your micro grid setup?
- If the average monthly consumption of power across the 1 Lac households is 150 kWh/month/home, and the commercial losses are over 40%, our meters pay back in less than 1 year. If the private utility or distribution franchisee works with us in a partnership model where the savings are shared over a longer period, the payback can become even quicker
- Regarding pricing for consumers, our users pay between Rs.150-350/month to run a whole range of household appliances including small water pumps. A generalized capex number for microgrids will be difficult to suggest because the cost depends on a whole range of factors.
Q6) What customer behaviors you have seen supporting and opposing pre-paid meters? How you envisage developing airtel like pre-paid payment retail outlets to encourage wider adoption?
- Not a single consumer we’ve interacted with has opposed the prepaid meter. What customers don’t want though is the fixed monthly charges. They want a 100% pay-as-you-go model as that gives them full control of their expenses and ensures that they don’t feel cheated when the grid does not supply power to them. This model leads to a lot of energy conservation, which makes a lot of sense in a country like India where power is a scarce resource, and the coal and power sector is heavily subsidized
Q7) What supporting eco-system you think will help young companies like you for quick go-to-market?
- Openness of DISCOMs to execute pilots without tendering. Access to an advisory panel that can help us understand the nitty gritties of the laws and restrictions in the sector. Access to actual data on real loss levels.