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Future of electricity

Power Up: New Substations Are Helping Close The Electricity Gap In India

Virginia Citrano
November 13, 2019
Located in the Indian state of West Bengal, Ramnagar is a small town just a few miles from quiet beaches and windswept dunes lining the Bay of Bengal. While those nearby coastal towns (some 100 miles southwest of Kolkata) attract beach-loving tourists, they’re nowhere near as popular as other Indian beach destinations, such as Goa. One of the reasons: The area doesn’t have reliable electricity.
India has made great strides in expanding access to electricity over the past decade, but it still has a ways to go. By December 2020, Ramnagar and two other towns in the state will house new electricity transmission substations that will feed reliable power to surrounding areas, helping them grow tourism and manufacturing and improving the quality of life for their residents.

Substations are a key part of the electrical grid. Like exits on a highway, they take the high-voltage current produced at power plants, often located far away, and step it down so that it can be sent out over local transmission lines into homes and businesses.

The substations dominant in India are large, outdoor stations with wires connecting transformers, circuit breakers and disconnect switches. In these substations, wires must be kept a certain distance apart; the air in between them essentially acts as an insulator, preventing dangerous arcs from forming between the wires and sparking fires.

Because air-insulated substations are open to the elements, they’re prone to damage in heavy storms, like the strong cyclones that blow into the Bay of Bengal. Heavy wind can break transmission lines, while flooding can damage equipment and cause the entire substation to lose power.

 width= Top image: A beach in West Bengal. Image credit: Getty Images. Above: A gas-insulated switchgear factory in India in the city of Padappai, Chennai. Image credit: GE Renewable Energy. Image credit: GE Power.

One way to deal with the problem is indoor substations where all of the electrical components are sealed inside a gas-filled container. Because the gas insulates the wires, they can be closer together — allowing engineers to shrink the substation’s footprint by more than a third. That’s a bonus in crowded urban areas where land is at a premium, says Debraj Mallick, who leads the commercial team for the Eastern India region at GE Renewable Energy’s Grid Solutions business, which designed the technology. GE is supplying the substation to the West Bengal State Electricity Transmission Company, the largest transmission network operator in the state.

Gas-insulated substations can also help India deal with another ongoing problem in improving the country’s energy infrastructure: transmission loss. West Bengal’s growing use of smaller, gas-insulated substations like the one in Ramnagar — which can be located close to the sites that need power — will reduce losses significantly.

GE was the first company to bring gas-insulated substations to India in 2008. Little more than a decade later, GE now manufactures almost all the parts needed for these plants in India. Mallick expects GE to continue to help bring electricity to remote areas in India, with projected growth of 8% to 10% in GE’s substation business in India in the years ahead.

That statistic may not register with the barefoot beachgoers or with West Bengal’s new generation of industrialists, but it does with Mallick: “As the power situation improves, it will make it easier for business and tourism here.”