Prof. Arup Dasgupta
On December 23, 1924 an international cartel of incandescent light bulb manufacturers named Phoebus was formed in Geneva. One of the significant moves by the cartel was to build in obsolescence in to the light bulb such that it would last for only 1,000 hours. Luckily for us, the cartel expired in 1930 due to the World War. Today we have LED lamps guaranteeing us life of 50,000 hours. Consumers have always looked for more and more options to be able to reduce their power costs. A new trend is the move to opt for captive power sources in their control which entails a capital outlay but reduces their dependence on power companies, which raise tariffs from time to time, as the cost of power generation and distribution increases. In fact, stories abound about residences and communities which have ‘gone off the grid’ to the extent that they at times actually feed power to the grid. In the US, the Public Utility Regulatory Act actually dictates that electric utilities on a traditional power grid must purchase excess electricity that renewable energy systems generate.
Over a period of a century, the power industry, which is really a ‘managed’ monopoly, in which the consumer pays and the industry collects, has made only incremental changes to meet these customer requirements. Now, technologies like smart grid have evolved to meet the challenge effectively by putting the consumers in the centre and allows them a degree of choice in terms of their use of power and includes features like dynamic pricing, prepayment, line loss analysis that help improve bill accuracy, grid reliability and therefore customer relationships. Grids become smart when they employ ICT to automate and manage their operations. Crucial to this is location and therefore geospatial systems. As Geoff Zeiss mentions in his cover article, the role of geospatial systems has been tactical but is now becoming more foundational.
The electric power industry has another challenge to face and that is environmental conservation. For long the industry has been running off non-renewable resources. Quite apart from the fact that, at present rate of usage, these resources are likely to run out by the next century, they also contribute significantly to the carbon loading in the atmosphere and therefore global warming. While it is a fact that economically coal is the cheapest source of energy, it is also true that it contributes to environmental degradation through opencast mining, land degradation through the creation of unsightly dumps, forest degradation, loss of habitat for wildlife and loss of livelihood for tribal communities. Renewable energy sources like solar, wind and hydro power are better options but do carry their own environmental risks. Non-conventional sources like tidal and geothermal are still in their infancy and their impact when upscaled to commercial level is as yet unknown.
What is known is that all these efforts will require considerable data and much of that data will be location based. Hence, whether it is distribution planning and management, forest conservation, location of wind farms or trade-off analysis between conventional and non-conventional sources of energy, geospatial technologies and systems will have to play a major role. This role will not be independent but will be in conjunction with other ICT systems and under an overarching sustainable socioeconomic model of growth and development.