Technology Advantage

Key digitalisation strategies and initiatives for the CGD sector

The city gas distribution (CGD) network is expanding as a result of a growing de­ma­nd for natural gas. With the adoption of digital transformation and the convergence of information technology (IT) systems and operational technology (OT), CGD firms can make better and faster business choices based on available data, automate business processes, increase operational efficiency, better manage assets, reduce downtimes and improve customer experience. The increasing adoption of advanced IT-OT convergence solutions, such as enterprise resource planning, customer relationship management, supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA), te­rminal automation systems, smart metering, geographic information system (GIS), and sate­llite surveillance sol­utions enable firms to monitor their assets in real time. Digital technology advancements have the ability to facilitate the industry’s res­ponsiveness to changes in the market. They can help unlock higher commercial value from a variety of activities, including the collection, processing, storing and distribution of natural gas. The time and mo­ney spent on manual inspection can be signi­ficantly reduced by collecting real-time digital da­­ta from a plant, equipment or process. Thus, te­chnology can be a major en­abler for CGD players.

Automation can help CGD players in gaining a better foothold in several operational areas. As part of the digital transformation st­ra­­tegy, automation is crucial to quickly and cost-effectively meet business demands. Using SCADA technology, the power of analytics and network sensors, CGD firms can do preventive maintenance and even remotely operate critical processes, thereby ensuring safety, ser­vice reliability, process optimisation and cost reduction. In addition to optimising workforce de­ployment and streamlining production, auto­mation reduces the total cost of ownership (TCO). Automation fits perfectly inside Industry 4.0, allowing for a quick, efficient and secure path to OT-IT integration.

First-mover advantages

Assam Gas Company Limited (AGCL) has been engaged in a transformational project involving the transportation, distribution and sale of natural gas through its well-established pipeline network and other infrastructure to industrial, commercial and domestic consumers in six districts of upper Assam.

The optimisation of gas flow along AGCL’s enormous pipeline network to ensure gas availability up to the last-mile consumer has been one of the greatest challenges for the operator. When pipeline gas pressure dropped below a specific limit in the gas distribution network, the first few AGCL centres would consume mo­re gas and exceed their quota, while consu­me­rs towards the end of the pipeline would not receive enough gas for their tea estates. This resulted in an uneven distribution of gas and no real-time visibility.

In order to address this, AGCL required a relevant digital solution to monitor, control and ensure uniform distribution of natural gas to its clients. Asea Brown Boveri (ABB) India im­ple­­m­en­ted a state-of-the-art, customised SCADA and telecom system for AGCL covering 74 tea estates and six large industrial users. The SCADAvan­tage system offers enhanced control and real-time monitoring of gas flow as well as secure and reliable administration of distributed assets which is essential for the AGCL project.

Other leading gas distribution companies such as Indraprastha Gas Limited (IGL) have also started implementing these digital interventions. Hitachi has implemented its core OT sensors and SCADA systems at IGL facilities, enabling remote operation of the CGD network. The scalable, data-driven technology has en­abled operators to predict peak hour usage pa­tterns based on which differential pricing could be levied, resulting in higher income. Co­n­se­qu­ently, IGL ex­perienced lower operational costs and inc­rea­sed operational safety.

Indian Oil Corporation Limited (IOCL), a dominant player in the Indian CGD industry, has established a CGD portal for enhanced cu­stomer experience and personalised services (gas usage tracking, service requests and tra­ck­ing, outage information, real-time interface with SAP and apps, etc.). It also received the ISGF Smart Category Award for Gas Distri­bu­tion. In addition, it has deployed central SCADA, web GIS solutions, cloud-hosted contact centre solutions and centralised vehicle tracking portal for light commercial vehicle movement.

Fresh technology trends

There are digitalisation opportunities across the whole CGD value chain. Pipeline leak de­tection via intelligent approaches (acoustic and robotic), automatic ultrasonic testing, robotic inspection, thermal mass flow sensors, GIS, innovations in cascade systems and intelligent dispensers are some of the most recent developments in the CGD sector.

Nylon polymer pipes, one of the advancements in pipeline technology, are being used in place of high density polyethylene pipes as they offer 25 times more abrasion resistance and superior resistance to static build-up. They can withstand temperatures up to 90 degrees and installation is significantly faster.

Automated ultrasonic testing uses high-frequency sound wave principles to evaluate pipe­line girth welds, thereby reducing the radiation risks associated with radiography. Inacce­s­sible pipes are inspected with the use of ro­botic crawlers that are capable of traversing complex geometries.

The robotic wireless in-pipe leak detection instrument consists of two components – a small robot with wheels to push it through pipes and a drum-like membrane that makes a seal across the pipe’s diameter. It rapidly detects leaks with a high accuracy rate. As data processing is dec­reased, energy usage is also reduced. Conse­quently, it cuts the cost of detection and improves the sensing system’s reliability.

Intelligent dispensers are outfitted with manual emergency shutoffs, methane sensors and automatic safety controls. New dispensers allow smooth integration at the point of sale.

Smart metering is a significant innovation being used to assist the CGD industry’s long-term growth objectives. Automated meter reading enables rapid deployment and improves distribution point reconciliation and loss management. In addition, it gives insights via dashboards. Automatic billing, remote location monitoring and end-to-end data security are additional perks.

IGL is embarking on an ambitious network expansion plan, by switching from a manual post-paid metering solution to an internet of things-based smart gas metering system that improves efficiencies as well as customer experience.

In April 2021, Adani Total Gas acquired a 50 per cent stake in Smartmeters Technolo­gies Private Limited for the purpose of manufacturing gas meters with an emphasis on prepaid smart meters.

Challenges and outlook

The lack of a comprehensive digitalisation ac­tion plan is one of the major impediments CGD companies are facing. Digital intervention leadership is hampered by lack of specialised kn­owledge. Additionally, the introduction of new digital solutions is met with resistance fr­om em­ployees. In addition to budgetary constrai­n­ts, there are interoperability challenges, lack of national or international standards for information technology, and threats to data security. CGD firms must therefore engage with technology providers, consultants and engineers to develop an all-encompassing plan. To reduce employee resistance, organisations should be reformed while complying with technology deployment requirements.

With the government focusing on enhancing the proportion of natural gas in the country’s energy mix, the importance of deploying digital technologies has intensified. Increasing the implementation of powerful IT-OT convergence solutions will enable businesses to monitor vital assets in real time. The real-time monitoring and management of gas distribution equipment will help prevent tough and dangerous situations, such as gas leaks, in turn, providing a safe working environment for employees and maximising operational efficiency. Digitalisation can assist CGD networks in transforming their operational processes by leveraging data to seize opportunities and maximise revenue.

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