Sterlite Power Transmission CEO Pratik Agarwal Bets Big On Technology

“We at Sterlite like to stay away from projects that others can do….we do projects which only Sterlite or may be few other companies across the globe can do,” Pratik Agarwal CEO Sterlite Power Transmission.

Sterlite Power Transmission CEO Pratik Agarwal Bets Big On Technology

India’s leading private developer of independent transmission systems (with largest pipeline of bid out projects), Sterlite Power Transmission Ltd is not just any other transmission company in India. This is indeed a company with a difference. And what makes it different from the rest is the way this company make use of latest technologies from across the globe to beat timelines in executing challenging transmission projects in the toughest of terrains in India.

At the helm of affairs of this techno-freak company is its young CEO, Pratik Agarwal (33). A graduate from Wharton and an MBA from the London Business School, Pratik (also a flyer himself) has made his company the first in India to deploy air cranes for installation of transmission towers, use helicopter stringing for cables installations and drones for conducting aerial surveys.

So while most infrastructure companies –working in challenging terrains across India, are usually seen using hundreds of mules to carry the heavy machinery and equipment, Sterlite Power Transmission has gone way ahead by using disruptive technologies to execute the toughest transmission projects, be it on the mountainous terrains of Jammu and Kashmir or other challenging terrains including riverbeds of Ganga, Kosi and Narmada, known for their turbulent water flow.

Anupama Airy, Founder & Editor of EnergyInfraPost.com (a leading web portal on energy and infrastructure) met Pratik Agarwal recently and spent some quality time with him at the company’s corporate office in Delhi, understanding the company’s vision, strategy and the road ahead.

Pratik Agarwal CEO Sterlite Power

Excerpts of the Recent and Exhaustive Interview done by EnergyInfraPost With Pratik Agarwal:

You said you undertake challenging jobs using latest technologies makes you different from the rest. What kind of challenges are you referring to?

Creating generation assets was challenging about a decade ago and that challenge has got largely met as the global cost curve on renewable energy came down. Today, it will not be fair to say that creation of generation capacities is any longer a challenge. If you have the land and you don’t need fuel and it is renewable generation that you want to do, all other things are taken care of. The toughest challenge, however, is to get reliable supply of quality power to the billion plus people, which is an issue worldwide.

So, it is the reliable delivery of power that is the true challenge. If you break up delivery, it is broadly transmission and distribution. Now while the distribution part of the delivery is still dominated by the government (99% of distribution is owned and operated by state government’s)…where also there are technical issues coupled with commercial and political one, which I would not like to get into as the same are being addressed through various other mechanisms.

However, a large part of inefficiency that exists is purely on the transmission side. For instance, cheap power is available in one part of the country but is not available or can’t be sold in the other part of the country. Then lot of wind power is being generated but is not being put into the grid because the grid can’t absorb it. What will happen 2 years from now is that another 20,000-40,000 mw or more of solar power generated perhaps will come as 100% generation between 12 pm to 5 pm and the grid may not be able to absorb it again. And this is despite solar and wind being the cleanest form of energy available to mankind. So we believe that all these challenges will require a whole new approach to solving them. Our company feels that technology is the answer to these challenges.Reliable delivery of power that is the true challenge- Pratik Agarwal Click To Tweet

But what are the challenges specific to transmission projects and how does technology overcome them?

Challenges in transmission projects can be categorized into two parts: problems of space and time. Time because generation assets today get build in roughly half the time that any transmission project takes. Recently, I met a solar developer and was surprised to hear him say that he will be putting up a 100 mw solar park with a total execution time of 110 days. Now compare this with the time taken to put up any evacuation line in the country is an average of 3 years or 1100 days. So if you have to match pace with generation projects, especially the solar projects (which is the future), you have to cut down your transmission projects timelines by 90%. So you cannot cut this time by pure project management techniques, which may take you from 1100 days to 500 days. But for 500 days to come down to 100, 200 or 300 days requires a disruptive technology and so that is why we focus so much on technology.

Then the other reason why we focus on technology is the issue of space. Lot of transmission projects got built in India during the 80s and around 2000-2010. Land wasn’t that much of a problem then. But as the next phase of load growth that happens in India —when we goes from consuming one trillion units to 2 trillion units, land will be a major issue. The 200 cities that consume bulk of the load in India and even with no new cities coming up in India, of course they are becoming smarter for sure—the question is how do you meet growth in load ….. earlier you could easily build a new line but today you can’t do that because land is not available and the real estate is very expensive.

So what this means is that you have to look at what is happening in California or Germany…which is that you have to use existing rights of way (RoWs) and double/triple those capacities. This requires rethinking of your designs in terms of putting up new towers and replacing the old ones….taking out old cables/wires and replacing them with the new super conductivity or high conductivity wires. A city like Mumbai for instance when doubles its power requirement, where are you going to build the lines? And integrating the massive renewable power being created in the country.

We at Sterlite have partnered the US-based CTC to create high-performance conductors that allowed the company to replace low capacity wires with new wires of higher capacity in metros like Delhi. This changeover increases capacity substantially without additional requirement of land or ROW. So these are some of the technologies that we at Sterlite are pioneering. We tell ourselves that we would like to stay away from projects which other people can do. There are hundreds of companies in business but we take up projects which only we can do and very few people in the world can do.

Which is the latest of such challenging projects that you have done in India?

One good example of it is our recent Kashmir project that was awarded to us in July 2014. Most of the transmission lines already laid there were going through the avalanche prone regions and were continuously falling down. So the central and the state government planned a new transmission line which bypasses the avalanche prone region and goes along the line of control (LoC) to enter into Punjab, which presently has surplus power. So this transmission project was put out on bidding rather than on cost plus and Sterlite won that project. On request of the Kashmir government, we finished the first phase of that project 12 months ahead of schedule (from Jalandhar to Jammu)…. and the second phase of the project from Jammu to Baramulla (traversing along the Mughal route through Pir ki Galli in Pir Panjal mountain range close to Uri sector of Kashmir) has the capacity of bringing 24×7 power to the valley.

This continuous supply of power is a must to bring economic prosperity to the state of J&K. So we were asked that this 50-60 months projects, which would take anyone else to finish it in 5-6 years, can be done by us in 3 years. And being Kashmir the time period of three years is really short because the window that you actually get to work there is 4 odd months…so three years also means just one year. So while there is no one in India who can do this kind of a project in such a short timeline, we thought of exploring how other countries having similar mountainous terrain execute such projects…..let’s say the rocky mountains in the US.

So we went over there and we found a helicopter company called Erickson Inc who is helping us install transmission towers in the Pir Panjal ranges using Air Cranes—a heavy lift helicopter. So we are the first company in India to deploy an air crane to airlift transmission towers and set up a power transmission systems in the mountainous terrains of J&K, well ahead of schedule to ensure power for all to the people of the state. So that is how we are beating time and getting ready for the upcoming solar revolution in India which would mean executing transmission projects in line with the project schedules in the most efficient manner and matching the timelines that the customer wants.

So is this the only technology that makes you different from the rest or are there any other advanced technologies which you are using?

We have also tied up with Sharper Shape of Finland to fly drones to monitor grid disturbances, and with Burn & McDonnell to bring in new technology and design into transmission. This technology will be the game changer for India’s infrastructure sector. Sharper Shape is the global market leader of automated drone-based asset inspections. Drones are transforming the way in which infrastructure is built and maintained. India has a power transmission network of more than a million circuit kilometers which is undergoing double-digit growth annually.sterlite-power

The use of drones will increase the uptime of the grid, reduce transmission tariffs, avoid grid blackouts, and also save the environment by reducing deforestation along the line corridors. Sharper Shape has already spearheaded the adoption of long-distance commercial drone flights for utilities in Europe. Sterlite Power has already introduced Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) for surveys and helicopters to avoid disturbances to farm activities and neighbors and speed up the process to commission much-needed infrastructure in India. So Sterlite Power is both a utility and a technology provider company and that is what makes us different from the rest.

How many projects have you done on ground?

We have done 10 projects comprising of 25 lines and 8 sub-stations. None of them are evacuation projects but all of them are strengthening projects. With the largest pipeline of bid out projects, in terms of cost, we have done about Rs 7000 crore of execution. In terms of circuit kilometres, we have done 3000 kms and another 4000 kms is under construction. The valley project –called the NRSS XXIX transmission project is currently in progress and comprises of three 400kV transmission lines traversing 900 circuit kms and covering states of Punjab and Jammu & Kashmir.

Then we are constructing another very important project for Gurgaon as this has the power of eliminating load shedding in Gurgaon. It is the Gurgaon-Palwal Transmission projects comprising of five 400 kV lines (341 CKms). This will take surplus power of UP (western part) into the heart of Gurgaon (Sohna Road). After this line is built and Gurgaon DISCOM decides not to any load shedding, there will be load shedding once it comes. While we have been given three years to do this project but given the importance of it, we plan to do it in half the time. Now as I earliar talked about Mumbai and Delhi, Gurgaon is another classic example. It is for sure that if today I build a transmission line and as Gurgaon is growing at an incredible pace, within five years that line will be choked. So what do we do then?

Now building a second line will be an issue due to the ROW and land issues. So as a solution for such cases, we have started using what is called high performance conductors, which allow us to put in double the power using the same line. So tomorrow when Gurgaon needs more power, I will have strechability in capacity. So we have already put high capacity conductors in this Gurgaon project.Sterlite Power Transmission CEO Pratik Agarwal Bets Big On Technology

So do you own all the transmission lines that you have carried out work on?

Yes we do in all these 10 projects we are doing. But other than owning and operating lines, we also provide technology intensive solutions.

Will give you another example of Goa where the Chief Minister wanted that during the coming Christmas, there is no load shedding in Panjim as every Christmas there is load shedding there. Now Goa produces no power and buys all power from Maharashtra and Karnataka. There is one line which comes from Maharashtra along the beach into Panjim and another line from Karnataka also along the beach into Panjim. Now the problem with line along the beach is that they are prime property so again I can’t build a second line. So we came up with a solution of removing these old wires and replacing them with high capacity US wires (we have a partnership with a US company).

Then we got another company from South Africa and while the line was in charged condition, we changed the line. Because you can’t shut the line as the moment you do it, the entire power to the city will go off. So these are other kind of technology intensive solutions that we provide. Now we have already done and handed over this project to Goa government. Assuming that the DISCOMS do their job, all of Panjim city will have no power cuts this… Click To Tweet

So the same problems will come with other cities of India where lines can’t be changed with demand going up every time, so it is these energised solutions which will pose the solution in all such cities. US and Canada have pioneered these technologies and we are bringing this technology from there into India. 

You talked about getting ready for the solar revolution where generation projects would have much shorter gestation periods. So what are your plans here?

We are getting ready as the plumbers of the solar world or in general as the FedEx of the electricity world. So we don’t make electricity but we know how to transport it in the most efficient manner and in the shortest possible time.

Even in case of solar, like I mentioned earliar, we will not be evacuating from one project. Say for instance let us take Jaisalmer in Rajasthan. There will be say 25 solar projects there and these will all come to a pooling point. It is from this pooling point that I will pick up electricity and take it to say consumption load centres like Agra or Moga from where distribution will take place to all of UP or all of Punjab. So it will be evacuating power from power surplus region to a region where there is demand for power.

Then there are many big wind power companies we are talking to who want to set up wind projects at places which are not connected by road yet but have excellent flow of wind. We will put up lines and carry out aerial surveys and are ready to provide solutions. And to do all of this technology will remain the buzzword at Sterlite. We continue to engage with global partners to get the best technology for executing transmission projects in India.

Watch Sterlite Power Transmission CEO Pratik Agarwal Speaks

Anupama Airy
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Anupama Airy

Founder and Editor at EnergyInfraPost
Independent Journalist and Energy Expert.​ (Worked with leading mainline financial and national daily for 23 years.​)​ Also, Guest Contributor with busines​sinsider.in
Currently, Writing a Book for Penguin India Titled Greased Pole:How Politics and Lobbying Stifled India’s Energy Dreams. The author can be reached on anupama.airy@gmail.com (9810661825)​
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