Virtual power plants: Metaverse for the power sector

By Somesh Kumar

The Metaverse holds immense potential for an asset-heavy sector like power and utilities that relies on huge assets spread across states and in some cases, countries. The key enablers of the Metaverse are augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), mixed reality (MR), internet of things (IoT), artificial intelligence, 3D reconstruction, blockchain and cryptography, and, not in the too distant future, extended reality (XR).

As surprising as it may sound, the power sector is not new to most of these emerging technologies. Utilities and ‘people-led initiatives/communities’, in some cases, are moving towards microgrids that leverage blockchain-enabled smart contract management that can help in transparent and efficient energy accounting at all levels and facilitate peer-to-peer trading between prosumers of electricity. Maintenance and monitoring of far-flung generation assets is a cumbersome task, especially in the wake of Covid-19, due to their geographical spread. VR/AR/MR technologies are tackling this problem head-on by enabling virtual site visits, field staff training, remote assistance to the field workforce, and maintenance in the most operationally efficient and cost-effective manner. Backed by advanced analytics, this can significantly improve operational efficiency and manpower productivity. Virtual power plants are virtual replicas created on the cloud, with the support of IoT devices installed on the asset and AR/VR/MR technology, that can help in streamlining remote operations. There could be a situation where the entire power asset can be viewed in 3D format and can be fully operated virtually.

These technologies will enable energy companies to convert into a distribution service operator (DSO) with multiple types of energy service (and potentially adjacent types of smart city services) offerings to consumers and help build smarter communities. As energy efficiency will continue to be a focus for these companies, the role of technology in sharing real-time information, analysing, and taking corrective actions will become more critical. The whole system may operate as one virtual world with AR/ VR. This can be very useful not just in optimising manpower and setting up shared operation centres but also in real-time monitoring of assets in a much more effective way. Automatic alerts and signals can enable faster identification and resolution of issues and bottlenecks to minimise downtime or failures. This can enable practitioners to learn power sector dynamics in an easier and more practical manner.

Discoms that are at the ‘consumer facing, revenue generating end’ are cash strapped. Would privatisation act as catalyst for Indian utilities to adopt these newer technologies, and would changing customer preferences give rise to new business models? These are questions that would be answered over time. However, the bottom-line remains the same—utilities will need to start factoring it into their short-term and long-term vision today. Globally, the early adopters among utilities are asking themselves how they should shape their future strategy to reap the dividends early. In the Indian context, this question assumes significant importance as the foundation stones have already been laid through implementation of several power sector technological reform schemes over the last two decades.

Moreover, the current pace of technology adoption by the Indian utilities aided by the power ministry’s vision to make the power sector ‘Future Ready’ underpins the country’s continued focus on technology-led innovation. To build on this foundation, the power and utilities sector in India should gear up on four fronts:
Strategy: Indian utilities that would implement the Metaverse use cases will need to identify the right use cases and evaluate their relevance with respect to the current socio-economic context, long-term vision, and financial viability.

Regulatory framework: Well-drafted strategy will need to be supported by a robust yet conducive regulatory framework that ensures adherence to safety and data privacy concerns without stifling growth and innovation.

Foundational technology ecosystem: Bringing a Metaverse use case to life entails congregation of several tools and technologies. Having foundational platforms and systems in place will enable faster adoption and benefit realisation.

Sustainability of the Metaverse: Implementation of a metaverse use case will certainly rely on real energy to work. Each bitcoin transaction today requires 2264.93 kWh of energy, greater than the per capita consumption of many countries. While this can give a boost to renewable energy generation, it also raises the larger question of how much of this consumption is inevitable and sustainable.

For a country endowed with abundant technologically skilled manpower and enormous potential for renewable energy, the future certainly looks bright in a Metaverse-driven world. The Indian power sector must seriously evaluate the benefits of the Metaverse and how it can be embraced to improve efficiency, reliability, and costs.

The author is Partner and leader (power & utilities), EY India Views are personal

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