Electricity service providers globally are experiencing rapid change driven by disruptive technologies that are transforming traditional energy market structures. Distributed energy resources like wind, solar, and battery storage, supported by their increasing cost-competitiveness with fossil-generation and changes in policy and consumer demands, are forcing utilities as well as municipalities in Africa to find ways to produce, transmit and distribute electricity in a sustainable and efficient manner, or risk losing customers.
“The ability to provide reliable electricity contributes vastly to improved healthcare, better education, eMobility and increased economic development,” explains Joseph Mahendran, Black & Veatch Sub-Saharan Africa Regional Manager. “Electric utilities have to embrace smart integrated energy infrastructure that can drive greater efficiency from existing resources, while preparing for the new energy systems of the future.”
For example, digital management of distributed energy sources has already begun and brings opportunities for Independent Power Producers (IPPs) to augment, and in some cases, compete with traditional utility services. He notes the industry is seeing the beginning of a convergence of IoT, telecommunications, advanced analytics, supply and management of electricity, in which mobile devices can be used to remotely control or switch on and off primary power plant equipment. “These are the innovations that we will see in the energy sector and, as a result, power utilities and municipalities will have to adopt to these technological innovations to be able to operate power systems efficiently to meet consumer demands.”
Mahendran says electric utilities are awakening to the power of innovation in terms of generation assets, and with the shift to decentralised, digital grids, the broadening appeal of more affordable renewables and low-carbon power sources.
He says decentralisation is occurring through off-grid and micro-grid systems, while renewables, distributed energy and smart grids need new capabilities, new business models and policy guidelines to drive growth and provide the flexibility for incumbent service providers to adjust to the marketplace.
The transition of traditional networks to smarter grids has been in progress for a while, but the past five years have seen the industry crank up its investment in grid modernisation efforts as advances in sensors and metering have fuelled the rise of data analytics versus catalogue system performance as a means to optimise.
“Historically, utilities have battled limited capital resources to build new capacity or replace aging assets. Today, the game has changed as service providers invest in technology to maximise and expand networks capable of supporting the influx of new technologies such as microgrids, electric vehicles and energy storage.”
Mahendran explains that energy storage technologies have been advancing for decades, backed by a growing awareness that storage holds the key to unlocking the world’s energy future. As storage technology improves and costs fall, it becomes central to the rise of wind and solar as baseload power sources by eliminating intermittency, a key hurdle in many
Looking ahead, he suggests that greater focus will also fall to power delivery infrastructure as traditional central generation baseload units give way to utility scale renewable projects and smaller DERs. More nimble transmission and distribution networks can support the enhancement of natural energy resources such as solar and wind because they readily available and cost-effective, and reduce adverse impact on the environment.
“African countries have a great opportunity to develop broader, more progressive guidelines and policies that encourage electricity sector innovation and support the introduction of new technologies at parastatal and municipal levels for modernised electricity generation and reduction in carbon emissions,” Mahendran concludes.