by Debarati Roy

Delivering IT at the Speed of Light

Aug 23, 201111 mins
BudgetingBusinessEnergy Industry

It was a tall order. For Reliance Infrastructure, repairing cut cables quickly and creating power infrastructure within 30 days of a customer request wasn’t child’s play.But its IT head knew that only IT could deliver speed.


It was a tall order. For Reliance Infrastructure, repairing cut cables quickly and creating power infrastructure within 30 days of a customer request wasn’t child’s play.But its IT head knew that only IT could deliver speed.

“The phenomenon of emergence takes place at critical points of instability that arise from fluctuations in the environment.” —Fritjof Capra, The Hidden Connections

There are two reasons why Capra’s books adorn Prashun Dutta’s cabin. The more obvious one is his love for quantum physics and the less is the fact that Capra is Dutta’s source of inspiration.

When Dutta, took charge at Reliance Infrastructure (previously Reliance Energy), as senior EVP (IT & Quality), the power sector was standing on the cusp of a revolution that was 54 years in the making. That year, the Electricity Act, 2003, was passed and it liberalized the power sector, opening it up to private players.

But it came with a caveat that’s been haunting private power players since that day: The Act made it mandatory for electricity suppliers to extend new connections faster or pay a penalty. “The conditions were challenging and unstable,” remembers Dutta. “Along with the opportunity, came the expectations of better service, better customer satisfaction, and better performance. But like Capra says, these were also the conditions that spark the emergence of ideas.” And those ideas are still ensuring that Reliance Infrastructure stays way ahead of its competition. High-Tension Wires Veiled by the magnificence of the Gateway of India, the luxuries of The Taj Mahal Hotel, and the luminosity of the Queen’s Necklace, lies the sad reality of Mumbai’s tarnished power wires.

Running over thousands of kilometers, dodging floody waters and the like, Mumbai’s power cables are making life hard for electricity suppliers. Providing uninterrupted electric supply to its existing customers and quickly provisioning Mumbai’s rapidly growing population with new electricity towers is a huge task.

And if a majority of customers are large industrial units or corporates—like that of Reliance Infrastructure—fixing wires at a snail’s pace means losing customers. With over 2.8 million customers in Mumbai, Reliance Infrastructure couldn’t take chances. Spread over 384 square kilometers, Reliance Infrastructure owns underground cables that run over 8,000 kilometers. The company has over 5,700 transformers spread over five zones in suburban Mumbai. That means, without a holistic view of its assets, customer locations and work sites, the company wouldn’t be able to quickly fix cut cables and create power infrastructure. In addition, says Dutta, “We needed to streamline our processes, increase the accuracy of our data, and improve outage response time.” The solution to both problems lay in a dual strategy: Implementing a global information system (GIS) and integrating it with SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition). The company had inherited SCADA from BSES which allowed it to monitor and remotely control its networks, electric grids, energy accounting, and load management for balancing the supply of electricity on a distribution network. SCADA and GIS together provide Reliance Infrastructure with a visual presentation of data to empower the company with end-to-end visibility into its operations. This includes equipment history, outage notification, and work orders based on customer’s calls. Dutta chose a GIS suite from ESRI to provide a single view of the entire electric distribution network spread across its five divisions in Mumbai. He then implemented ESRI’s ArcGIS desktop clients (a software which helps discover patterns, and trends in data, consolidate and integrate data and display it as points on a map), ArcGIS Schematics (extension to ArcGIS for desktop that allows rapid checking of network connectivity), and ArcIMS (Arc Internet Map Server). The GIS system maps the entire network of Reliance Infrastructure on a visual 3-D map.But if the system was to take on the insurmountable challenge of repairing cables and creating power infrastructure fast, it needed to increase its levels of automation. Dutta decided to integrate GIS, SCADA, and the company’s ERP systems. The IT team at Reliance Infrastructure integrated GIS with SAP Plant Maintenance and billing, and customer care services. The Microsoft .NET framework allows the creation of Web services within SAP. GIS applications use these Web services to provide multiple user access to the same data. Armed with his new system, Dutta was now ready to conquer time itself. Keeping the Lights On In a presentation on India’s power sector to the Ministry of Power, Salman Zaheer, a senior energy economist at the World Bank, says that almost 60 percent of Indian firms rely on costly generators to run their businesses. Zaheer also says that large industrial estates and commercial set-ups are willing to pay higher prices to electricity utilities—on the condition that services are efficient. This includes fewer outages, and shorter black-outs (by lowering the time it takes to fix a blow transformer, for instance), less voltage fluctuation, no billing hassles, etcetera. Conventionally, whenever there is an outage, customers dialed into Reliance Infrastructure’s call centers to log a complaint. The division office from the area in question would be alerted and then engineers and linemen would take inputs from SCADA. But this information wasn’t specific, meaning it could only indicate that the problem lay within any two specific points within 300 meters of the network. Then, engineers needed to consult maps that depict the layout of the network and its cables. An outage usually occurs due to a problem either in the cable or at the points where the cables join. After locating the joint, a team needed to dig up the cables for restoration work—a process that took two to three hours. “The entire process could be extremely cumbersome because maps needed to be carried back and forth. We are an 80-year-old company, and some of these maps were created when the cables were laid,” says Dutta.

Dutta knew that he needed to introduce an Outage Management System (OMS) which could provide the engineers with information to help them figure out where the problem lay (on the network) in the least amount of time. The OMS application was layered on top of the GIS platform to integrate all essential data—from SCADA, customer information, work orders, and the electric network from GIS. This information is integrated with enterprise applications like SAP and Domino. Now whenever an outage occurs, a customer complaint is registered in SAP from the call center and the system alerts the zonal office. The engineers at the office then use the data from SCADA and GIS in combination with other tools to figure out the exact point of the problem. “With the new systems, any given division is mapped with an online link to a scanned image of the map of that area, giving the engineer access to all the data that he wants on one screen,” says Dutta. The system can also pull out historical and geographical data from SAP and GIS to give the engineers a 360 degree view of the possible vulnerabilities in that area, like: If the area is prone to outages due to flooding, or incessant rain etcetera. The system also gives critical information like the distance of the affected area from the nearest zonal office. And once the spot is identified, the system sends an SMS alert to the field staff closest to the area to fix the problem. “Earlier, figuring out a problem required the experience of a core engineer. Now, with the amount of data available, even a semi-skilled resource trained on GIS can provide engineers with quality information,” says Dutta. This extremely complex yet efficient mechanism has helped the field force at Reliance Infrastructure cut the time it takes to figure an outage problem from five hours to about an hour. “Apart from the time needed for excavating the wires, which cannot really be improved, we have significantly managed to reduce the time to resolve a problem and improve customer satisfaction,” says Dutta. Maximum City,Maximum Power There’s a reason why Mumbai is called the Maximum City. Its growing population is stretching its boundaries and crowding the suburbs. And demanding power. A 2011 study conducted by IIT Mumbai, found that the increasing daily power demand of Mumbaikars living in the suburbs alone will almost double from the current 1,697 MW to 3,284 MW in 2030. Going by these numbers, the study suggests that Reliance Infrastructure, India’s largest private sector enterprise in the power industry and the main supplier to Mumbai suburbs, would need to lay an additional 670 kms of wire network with advanced transformers in the next five years. The exercise could cost Reliance Infrastructure over Rs 700 crore. At the same time, Reliance Infrastructure was also under pressure to ensure that its customers got electricity connections fast. According to Section 43(1) of the Electricity Act 2003, an organization is liable to penalty if it can’t give a customer a connection within 30 days of a request. Earlier, when a customer requested for a new connection, he had to suffer in the hands of numerous manual processes that resulted in unnecessary delay. After the validation of the documents submitted by the customer (land ownership documents, details of the proposed requirements of the property to be constructed, etcetera) a team of engineers would visit the site of installation. This was followed by a detailed study of the underground cable network in that area to figure out the closest point from where a new connection could be extended. Also, the team needed to determine the amount of load the existing wires in that area could carry and calculate how the network would behave with the new load. “Network planning for expansion with its various connotations, both manual and procedural, could become an exercise that could take over four to five weeks,” says Dutta. Often, when Reliance Infrastructure received a request for a new connection, the builder wouldn’t have started construction at the site. In such cases, a temporary connection would be extended to the construction site. “Once the building was complete, the builders would demand a connection. But then we often realized that the construction space was completely exhausted and there was no space for us to build a grid or install a transformer,” says Dutta, “Procuring inventory at such a short notice was also a problem and lead to unnecessary delays.” But GIS has changed that. Now, when builders apply for a new connection, they are asked to provide a tentative date for the completion of construction. The system alerts or reminds the engineers of that date in the respective zonal office, five times during the entire period at regular intervals. This helps them keep a tab on the progress of the building and be prepared. “Thanks to GIS, we have managed to shrink the time it takes for network planning and expansion from five weeks to a couple of days,” says Dutta. Not just that, the system organized how Reliance Infrastructure works too: It helped the company keep track of digging permissions, for instance.

Because the company owned underground cable structure, it needed to obtain Right of Way (ROW) permission from the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). These permissions are obtained at a cost and are valid only for a specific period in time. “We apply for thousands of permits a year, and manually keeping a track of their expiry, and the transactions involved for each of these permits was impractical,” says Dutta. That’s why—with GIS—engineers fill in permit requests on an app in the system which then calculates the values that need to be filled in the request form (like, how much distance of digging is required, how long it might take, and how much it needs to pay). Once permission is obtained, it is uploaded on the system with the expiry dates and other details. The system also alerts users when a permission is about to expire. “Since we now know where a project is being proposed, and places we have permission to lay more cables, we can optimize resources and save time,” says Dutta. There are monetary benefits as well. For example, if an engineer filled a request for digging up a five kilometer stretch for laying new cables, the company would have to pay a stipulated amount to BMC. In cases where the final area excavated was only three kms, the company needed to retrieve the extra amount paid. The system calculates and alerts Reliance Infrastructure about the money due from BMC. “This means that everyone associated with Reliance Infrastructure, employees, and customers are happy,” says Dutta. But all this automation makes the job for the employees hassle-free. What’s in it for customers?

“We have brought down the time taken to extend a new connection from 31 days to almost seven days. But the ultimate goal is to achieve it in four days,” says Dutta.

And, given his track record, he will.

Prashun Dutta, senior EVP (IT & Quality), Reliance Infrastructure, reduced the time it takes to fix outages by 80 percent.

Prashun Dutta, senior EVP (IT & Quality), Reliance Infrastructure, reduced the time it takes to fix outages from five hours to about an hour.