The generation, transmission and distribution of electricity is fraught with challenges, particularly in South Africa where stability of supply remains a prevalent and highly contentious issue. Furthermore, the South African grid, like its international counterparts, is impacted by trends such as decentralisation, decarbonisation and incorporating alternative energy supply into an already ageing infrastructure.
To address the above challenges, utilities must move towards a software architecture that leverages connected products to deliver insights, efficiencies and intelligence that can take them one step further towards harnessing the benefits that come with the smart grid. And at the heart of it all lies digitalisation.
Addressing immediate challenges
It is estimated that South Africa’s current fleet of power stations runs at 65% availability; that means 35% is not available at all due to maintenance and outages. It’s a significant number which explains why the grid is volatile and so severely impacted by one or two generating units going offline.
Digitalisation can go a long way in preventing downtime, providing valuable visibility into both power and equipment conditions. The reality is that many facilities still use a rudimentary level of technology to prevent power system failures and to minimise operational costs. This means faults are addressed in a reactive as opposed to a predictive and proactive manner.
However, with digitalisation, the return on investment (ROI) from both a faul-finding and operational cost perspective will be quicker than expected. With digitalisation, utilities can uncover opportunities to:
• Optimise energy use and cut costs.
• Be warned of potential risks.
• Recover faster from problems.
• Streamline maintenance and reporting.
• Boost the performance and lifespan of equipment.
Step by step
Due to significant advances in technological innovation, digitalising a grid infrastructure might be less daunting than one would expect. Some utilities are already on their way, so to speak, with smart devices such as digital power meters and smart circuit breakers already running on their infrastructure. Connecting these devices and integrating them with analytics applications enables utilities to obtain insight into actionable information that will assist in managing and optimising energy usage throughout the grid.
The good news is that even legacy equipment can be retrofitted with smart devices and sensors. These upgrades are still very cost-effective when considering the vast benefits and ROI of digitalisation. The Internet of Things (IoT) is also enabling more connectivity and intelligence in various devices; from circuit breakers and transformers to power quality monitors and busbar temperature sensors, to equipment with embedded sensors like protection relays, to automation equipment like RTUs.
Smart devices running on a power network can perform a lot of metering, logging and analysis. IoT enablement means that this data can then be shared with cloud-based storage and applications, while mobile apps can access each device’s onboard data and functions. All of this means the utility’s operations and maintenance personnel get easy, fast access to important information and alarms from wherever they are, with the ability to collaborate across teams.
Optimising the above are powerful software applications that aggregate and analyse data from across many facilities. And this is where the full potential of digitalisation is realised; providing utilities with visibility into every inch of the electrical system, be it supervising electrical processes, early warning of risks or capturing opportunities to improve power, energy and equipment performance.
A digitally connected power distribution system can provide utilities with the tools to maximise energy and lifecycle efficiency while enabling condition-based maintenance. Moreover, it can prepare the grid to switch over to renewables in a seamless and less disruptive manner.
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