India is the world’s third-largest energy-consuming country and also the world’s third-largest carbon emitter. Having committed to the Paris Agreement to curtail its carbon footprint by 33-35 percent from its 2005 levels, the country is looking at pursuing low-carbon energy pathways that would help achieve the goal by 2030.Towards this, the Petroleum and Natural Gas Ministry has announced a target of increasing the share of natural gas in the country’s primary energy mix to 15 percent. Furthermore, India’s rapid pace of motorisation and industrialisation is the driving force that will triple the demand for the low-polluting urban utility by 2040, making the country the fastest-growing natural gas market in the world.While City Gas Distribution (CGD) companies may explore the idea of investing in infrastructure to cater to the surge in demand for natural gas, they would also be circumspect about the possibility of competition coming in if the market opens up for use by third party incumbents in the future - as it may impinge upon their exclusive rights to operate and grow their gas distribution infrastructure in their designated geographies.In either scenario, they would realise that automation can help gain a stronger foothold and reap benefits that can propel them ahead in several aspects of operations within their downstream business.Automation: A vital factor for getting ahead of the curveConsidering the extensive network of infrastructure assets that need to be maintained, gas companies would choose to make smart choices about where to focus efforts. Automation, an integral part of a digital transformation solution, holds the key to optimising the outcomes that meet evolving business demands – in a relatively swift and cost-effective manner.Tapping into the power of breakthrough technologies can unlock greater business value from various processes including gathering, processing, storing, and even distributing natural gas.Also Read: Intelligent Automation of Shared ResourcesProcess Automation is regarded as being the technology that energy companies can rely on for modernising internal processes. While enabling improved access to information on operations and maintenance, it helps the industry streamline its production and distribution functions, resulting in incremental yield.Addressing the priorities of cost, performance and risk, automation enables optimisation while focusing on reliability and availability of the yield, asset life cycle cost reduction, improved decision-making, and mitigation of critical failures – with safety and sustainability as a key priority.To illustrate, gathering and analysing real-time digital data for a plant, equipment or process can save significant time and cost spent otherwise on manual inspection. Using SCADA technology, the power of analytics and network sensors, CGD companies can conduct preventive maintenance and even control key processes through remote access – ensuring safety, reliability of service, process optimisation and cost reduction.The application of process automation solutions like SCADA technology is enabling the modernisation of gas distribution networks in metropolitan cities of India.When it comes to harnessing the power of technology to realise process efficiencies, automation not only takes the company forward through modernisation but also optimises manpower deployment, streamlines production, reducing the total cost of ownership (TCO). Automation fits like a glove in Industry 4.0, enabling a fast, efficient, and secure path to OT-IT integration.Most notably, automation provides a control methodology that helps to automate workflows while optimising operations, helping companies maximise uptime and enhance performance. It offers a real-time relational Database Management System that goes on to enhance data integrity and data retrieval. It augments the safety and accuracy of existing human-driven tasks, reducing untoward incidents such as injury and loss of life.By deploying automation, CDG companies can save time through actionable insights and achieve scalable processes. When internal IT processes are modernised and automated, all energy operations and the production process get simplified boosting yields, reducing the carbon footprint and increasing potential revenue.When automation is powered with Artificial Intelligence (AI), the business can avail the advantage of contextualising and integrating valuable data from diverse and disparate systems scattered across units and pipelines.Automation also helps utilities in their distribution network to identify gas leakages and pressure variations that could lead to environmental hazards and also revenue loss. Bringing together real-time operational data and combining it with engineering and transactional data, while applying AI to garner meaningful insights, is now a reality with the integration of AI in automation. These insights help improve the performance and efficiency of any gas distribution company’s assets, processes, and production.In conclusionKeeping India’s energy targets in mind, natural gas is going to gain a larger share in the country’s energy mix. The existing regulatory scenario and policies are conducive for CGD companies to gear up for the increasing demand. In the wake of potential competition, increasing margin pressures, and the need for reducing costs, the adoption of automation becomes a prerequisite for any business to stay relevant and meet the evolving demands of its end consumers.The government plans to invest approximately $102 billion on oil and gas infrastructure in the next five years, with a focus on doubling natural gas production to 60 billion cubic metre (bcm), and also plans to drill more than 120 exploration wells by 2022.Furthermore, with a view to expanding the national gas grid to 27,000 km, the government has announced that it would add 100 more districts to the City Gas Distribution (CGD) network by 2023. The Petroleum and Natural Gas Regulatory Board has already laid the groundwork for providing CGD coverage to 70 percent of India's population. While there is a strong emphasis to shift to a gas-based economy, CGD companies, more than ever before, would seek newer ways to meet the burgeoning demand for natural gas.Increasing the contribution of electricity to decarbonise mobility, moving into clean fuels, and emphasizing automation across energy systems, are steps towards realising a cleaner and greener India.The author, G Balaji is head of Energy Industries division in Industrial Automation, ABB India. The views expressed are personal.