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In a small building nested in one corner of General Electric’s (GE’s) sprawling John F Welch Technology Centre campus on the outskirts of Bengaluru, a team of around five engineers have their eyes fixed on a couple of dashboards. They are constantly monitoring the performance of two micro-power generation units in two remote Bihar villages, Tayabpur and Behlolpur, some 2,000 km away, and also in some global locations. They are checking the real-time power demand in these villages at different times using GE’s industrial IoT software platform Predix and are accordingly feeding the grid with energy so that there is no wastage or short supply.
“It’s loaded with our Predix software that forecasts demand and automatically balances between solar, diesel and the battery so that the grid is stable,” says Vinay B Jammu, vice president and head of physical-digital analytics and digital research at GE Global Research. “The only person on the ground is a site engineer who we can contact via an SMS in case the solar panels have become dusty, or to fill diesel for the generator, or for any other maintenance.”
The 15KW hybrid power units in Bihar are two of five such units GE is testing globally to find a viable and cost-effective solution to power micro grids. While two other units are located in villages in Ethiopia, it has another one in a mining town in Australia.
All the locations picked for the pilots are so inaccessible that the company thinks they might never get connected to the grid ever.
Behlolpur and Tayabpur, which together have a population of around 2,200, for instance, are both riverine villages and can only be accessed via a barge on the river Ganges. It’s the treacherous terrain that had denied people in these villages electricity, and GE thinks it has a solution.
“There are a lot of smart ideas that have gone into building these things. If we can predict and manage the load, then we can manage the costs in a big way. That is why this is not simply putting three things (solar panels, diesel generators and batteries) together,” says Munesh Makhija, CEO, GE India Technology Center CTO, GE South Asia.
In India, GE has partnered Tata Power to set up the grid, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to pick the right locations for setting up the micro grids, and Prayas Juvenile Aid Centre to deploy manpower needed for the operation of the power units. The magic, though, it says, is in the software which runs the tiny power plants, which on their own know how to manage the peaks and lows in power consumption. GE has employed ‘Digital Twins’ at its research centre in Bengaluru, which are essentially digital replicas of the units on the ground, which when continually fed with data get better at predicting demand and switching between solar, diesel and battery to manage the energy demands of the villagers. This, the company feels, is the only way to make such units efficient and cost-effective enough to serve as a replacement for the grid.
“It’s going to be very hard for something like this to achieve grid level costs of energy because prices are coming down so fast, thanks to scale. But we are continuously working on how to bring the cost down through our new technologies, since the only way to think about it is these people do not have electricity at all. Even if it is higher cost, having access to energy offers value and improves their quality of life,” adds Jammu, a PhD in Prognostic Health Management from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Designed and developed entirely out of GE’s India R&D centre over the past two years, the power units are now close to the stage of commercialisation. While the cost of energy will be higher than that of the grid, at the current stage, it’s cheaper than running a diesel generator.
The company feels it can bring more value by borrowing a page out of the playbooks of telecom operators in India, offering byte-sized energy plans to households so that they can actually afford it. The company says it is in the process of figuring out its go-to-market strategy – whether on its own or through partners.
* GE is piloting its made-in-India 15KW hybrid power units in five locations globally
* These include two in Bihar, two in Ethiopia and one in Australia
* Each unit has a ‘digital twin’ or a virtual replica
* Units that run on GE’s Predix platform can be monitored from anywhere in the world
* GE is now planning to commercialise the product
* The firm is also looking at innovative models such as prepaid electricity to fit every pocket