Editor's Choice

The emergence of a new future in the energy sector

April 2020 Editor's Choice

Adaptively complex and persistent challenges in Africa are driving the need for a new future in the energy sector. Lack of access to energy, (more than 600 million people in Africa with no access to energy) lower cost alternatives, reliability of supply, economic growth, social discourse and activism are all influencing the need for, and pace of, transition to new sector orientations. The growing pain-points and emerging opportunities are driving decarbonisation, decentralisation, and digitalisation. The 2018 future of smart energy in sub-Saharan Africa report by Frost & Sullivan (in partnership with General Electrics) notes that more than 600 000 Africans, many of which are children, die each year from air pollution caused by cooking with wood and charcoal. This calls for decarbonisation and drives growth in renewables. The high cost of energy distribution and lack of affordability by the bottom of the pyramid markets drives the need for decentralisation. Finally, the need for consumers to control energy usage, save money, and raise efficiency is giving rise to the digitalisation reality.

Against this backdrop, the contention is that technology itself will not rescue Africa from its energy challenges. However, understanding of the context-specific pain-points and opportunities, along with deliberate intention to confront these adaptively complex challenges by mapping them to innovative technological solutions, will enable Africa to reach its energy promise. For example, distinctive challenges in Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya accentuate the above perspective.

Nigerian context: grid instability

The national grid in Nigeria collapses and shuts down some 32 times a month, on average. This is a dominant factor responsible for bringing a once rapidly growing economy to a halt. As a result, major businesses in Nigeria are now relying on internally generated power and using the national grid as a backup supply. The new unregulated market configurations increase national grid instability and unplanned failures. Furthermore, the increasingly expanding entrepreneurial ecosystem cultivated localised mobile solar panel charging systems, which further disrupts the legacy power infrastructure. The growing micro-grids and pockets of reserves from rapidly growing solar systems, coupled with current power grid instability, give rise to the digitalisation of the current grid’s system. Against this context, the digitalisation of the transmission grid could help stabilise the demand-supply dimensions by balancing reserves from growing intermittent sources like wind and solar.

South African discourse: carbon footprint and transitional challenge

The energy challenges in South Africa are characterised by monopolised power systems and the predominant feedstock of fossil fuels. These are mainly coal and oil. Eskom’s high levels of debt, falling revenues, rising costs, and ageing power plant infrastructure leaves South Africa with no choice but to transition to a new future in the energy sector. This need is accelerated by unsustainable levels of carbon emissions, new lower-cost alternatives, social activism against global warming and the emerging consumer behaviours of procuring more behind-the-meter assets to generate power at home such as gas systems and rooftop solar systems. The latter exacerbates Eskom’s revenue drip.

The inescapable question for South Africa is, against the background of our context, which digital technologies and applications will land us safely in the new future? For example, could blockchain technology facilitate consumer-to-consumer energy merchandising in the new localised smart grids dominated by rooftop solar generation?

Challenge for Kenya: Unsustainable costs

In the past seven years, the electricity access rate in Kenya has increased from 18% to 67%. According to the social development leg of the United Nations, this is mainly due to the ongoing rural electrification programme initiated by the government. Although Kenya has made significant strides forward, the main challenge for the large majority of the population is the affordability due to high costs. It is for this reason that wood, kerosene, and candles still form part of the energy mix, yet Kenya boasts the largest wind power generating facility in Africa. This is the 310 Megawatt, Lake Turkana wind power facility. The circumstances call for expansion of the newly growing business models that offer energy as a service. An example of this is the complete offering of off-grid systems using automated pay-as-you-go for payment. Smart metering locked onto gas cylinders for clean cooking is one example.

Supported by the pay-as-you-go digitised technology, the localised gas systems, micro-grids, solar home systems, and energy storage will all play a dramatic role in ensuring that these rural communities have safe, reliable and clean energy for the basics, such as cooking.

In conclusion, when context, pain-points and/or opportunities are understood and not ignored, digitalisation applications promise to deliver significant value-add and progress.

Oratile Sematle

Oratile heads a digital studio at Sasol Chemicals and leads multi-skilled agile teams tasked to deliver Minimum Viable Products (MVPs) such as predictive/dynamic pricing models, demand planning and optimisation and AI/ML engines using SCRUM and KANBAN frameworks. He holds a BSc degree in electrical engineering as well an MBA from the University of Cape Town. As a former president of the Society of Automation, Instrumentation, Measurement and Control (SAIMC), he helps to drive the vision shared by council to address issues specific to the automation industry, and is partly accountable for the development of the automation engineering profession in South Africa. Oratile is a conference speaker and has spoken at engineering events such as Industry 4.0 and African Automation Fair. His ambition is to form cross-industry coalitions to tackle the social and educational problems experienced by disadvantaged communities.

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