India is rapidly transforming into a gas-based economy by increasing the share of natural gas in the energy mix from 6 per cent in 2019 to 15 per cent by 2030, with Rs 1.2 trillion of investments in the city gas distribution (CGD) sector. At a recent conference on “Digitalisation of CGD Net­­wor­ks”, Shireesh Swami, Techno­logy Principal at Tata Consulting Engineers (TCE), highlighted the growing role of digitalisation in the CGD sector.

Need for digitalisation

The rising demand is catalysing growth of the CGD network. After the 10th bidding round, the CGD network is expanding to 228 geogra­phical ar­eas (GAs) covering almost 71 per cent of the cumulative population and around 53 per cent of the area of the country. For the 11th bidding ro­und, the Petroleum and Natural Gas Regulatory Board (PNGRB) has already invited bids for ex­panding the CGD network in 65 GAs, including Jammu, Udhampur, Reasi, Samba and Kathua dis­tricts in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kash­mir; Mandi, Kullu, Kinnaur, La­haul and Spiti di­stricts in Himachal Pradesh; and Kondagaon, Bastar, Sukma, Narayanpur, Bijapur and Dante­wada districts in Chhattisgarh.

The varied challenges faced by the CGD sector such as high operating costs due to ageing ass-ets, customer dissatisfaction due to costly and intrusive pipes, third-party damage to pipes and faulty meters created the need to adopt digital solutions. The ongoing Fourth Industrial Revolu­tion further catalysed digitalisation. The revolution is influencing all sectors via digital interventions such as big data and analytics, drones, in­dustrial networking, additive manufacturing, auto­nomous robots, and smart sensors. Hence, digitalisation of the CGD network will help overcome these cha­ll­enges and address the rising demand. Digitali­sation is one of the key emerging trends transforming the entire CGD sector. From demand management to improving operational resilience, from remote condition monitoring to real-time customer communication, new technologies and data analytics enable companies to achieve specific business goals, while simultaneously maximising efficiency.

Innovations in the CGD sector

Some of the latest advancements in CGD are pipeline leak detection using smart techniques (acoustic and robotic), automatic ultrasonic testing, robotic inspection, thermal mass flow sensors, geographic information system, innovations in cascade systems and smart dispensers.

Nylon polymer pipes, one of the innovations in pipeline technology, can be used as a substitute for high-density polyethylene (HDPE) as they offer 25 times more resistance to abrasion and better resistance to static build than HDPE pipes. They are suitable for temperatures up to 90°C and have a maximum operating pressure of 35 bar(g). The installation time is much lower than that of other pipes.

Automated ultrasonic testing employs high-frequency sound wave principles for inspecting pipeline girth welds, eliminating radiation hazards associated with radiography. Robotic crawlers are used for the inspection of inaccessible pipelines. The robotic crawlers can be navigated through many difficult geometries. The video cameras installed on the crawlers re­co­rd pipeline interiors. Electromagnetic acoustic transducers and laser gauges are also installed to measure the pipeline wall thickness and for contouring the pipeline interior.

Acoustic leak detection technology detects anomalies associated with leaks in a pressurised pipeline of a diameter of 4 inches or more. It uses the principle of sound waves and can detect pinhole leaks and small leaks as low as 0.11 l/min, moving seamlessly and quickly through pipe­lines. The robotic wireless in-pipe leak detection tool consists of two parts – a small robot with wheels to propel it through pipes and a drum-like membrane that forms a seal across the diameter of the pipe. It detects leaks at a rapid pace with a high accuracy rate. As there is a reduction in data processing, power consumption is also lowered. Hence, it reduces the cost of detection and impro­ves reliability of the sensing system. This is a significant impro­vement over traditional leak detection systems, which are much slower and unable to detect leakages of lower magnitudes.

Smart dispensers are equipped with emergency manual shut-offs, built-in methane sensors and automatic safety controls. New dispensers ensure seamless point-of-sale integration. Unique methods of payment are being set up at fuelling stations through contactless and near-field communication readers. In the near future, conventional credit card payments will be replaced by mobile wallet and contactless technology.

There are opportunities for digitalisation throughout the entire CGD value chain. The super­visory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems are fed process parameters such as temperature, flow rate and gas pressure in the city gate and CNG station, through application of a business analytics tool. Transaction details, pressure at the dispenser end, station-wise reports of gas sale are moni­tored throu­gh systems, applications and pro­ducts (SAP). Video analytics devices at CNG filling stations provide integrated security solutions.

Smart metering is a key innovation being adopted to support the long-term growth aspirations of the CGD sector. Automated meter reading en­ab­les rapid deployment and ensures better reconciliation between distribution points and loss tracking. It also provides insights through dashboards. There are also benefits of automatic billing, remote lo­cation monitoring and guaranteed end-to-end data security.

Early adopters

Leading gas distribution companies have already begun to implement these digital interventions, such as Indraprastha Gas Limited (IGL), with Hita­chi leveraging its operations’ automation expertise to scale up its network. Hitachi installed its core operational technology (OT) technology sensors and SCADA systems at IGL sites, en­ab­ling remote control operation of the CGD network. The scalable, data-driven solution enabled operators to predict peak hour consumption patterns based on which differential pricing could be levied, re­sulting in enhanced revenue. Conse­quent­ly, IGL witnessed reduced operational cost and increased operational safety. The automation firm, ABB Li­mi­ted, delivered a customised SCADA and telecom solution to Assam Gas Com­pany Limited (AGCL), covering 74 tea estates and six big industrial consumers in the first phase of the project, when AGCL wanted to optimise gas flow al­ong its extensive gas pipeline network. The SCADA technology not only facilitated detecting gas leakages and enabling management of gas transmission, but also provided greater visibility on demand and supply forecast. An enterprise resource planning (ERP) solution integrated with SCADA also ensured accurate billing for AGCL without the need for physical data collections over vast remotely located areas.

Key issues of digitalisation

One of the key challenges faced by CGD companies is the lack of an overall strategy to implement digitalisation. There is a dearth of expertise to lead digital interventions. Furthermore, introduction of new digital solutions causes pushback from employees. Apart from budget limitations, there are issues of interoperability, absence of national or international standards on information technology and data security threats. Therefore, CGD firms must collaborate with technology pro­viders, consultants and engineers to derive a comprehensive strategy. Organisations should be restructured while aligning with requirements for technology implementation, in order to avoid employee pushback.

Future roadmap

The number of CNG stations is estimated to re­ach 10,000 from the existing 1,800 and the number of household kitchen connections is projected to reach 50 million by 2030 from the current 5.2 million. As the government places a greater emphasis on raising the share of natural gas in the country’s energy basket, it becomes increasingly critical to deploy digital technologies. The increasing deployment of advanced IT-OT convergence solutions is helping companies monitor their critical assets on a real-time basis. The real-time monitoring and control of gas distribution equipment will help avoid challenging and hazardous situations such as leakages, thus enabling a safe environment for wor­kers and ensuring operational efficiency. Digita­lisation can help CGD networks transform operational processes by har­nessing data to leverage opportunities, while maxi­mising revenue and profitability.