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.




Share this article:
Share via emailShare via LinkedInPrint this page

Further reading:

Loop Signatures 1: Introduction to the Loop Problem Signatures series
May 2020, Michael Brown Control Engineering , Editor's Choice
Over the years I have had many requests to write a book giving more detailed explanations of some of the problems I have encountered in my work on practical loop optimisation. I am by nature and inclination ...

Read more...
From the editor's desk: The virtual business assistant
May 2020, Technews Publishing (SA Instrumentation & Control) , Editor's Choice
Have you ever wished someone would automate the daily grind of routine tasks and set you free to focus on the more engaging aspects of your job?

Read more...
From the editor's desk: The virtual business assistant
June 2020, Technews Publishing (SA Instrumentation & Control) , Editor's Choice
Enter robotic process automation (RPA), a disruptive workplace technology that uses software “robots” to mimic many of the repetitive interactions human beings have with their computers. It performs such ...

Read more...
Case History 172: Interesting controls in a copper extraction plant.
June 2020, Michael Brown Control Engineering , Editor's Choice
In my 30 years devoted to optimising controls in industrial process plants in many countries, I thought that I had seen all the possible process dynamics that one would encounter. Imagine my surprise ...

Read more...
Case History 171: Instability in a metallurgical plant
March 2020, Michael Brown Control Engineering , Editor's Choice
I have written several articles about the unique problems I have encountered, specifically in the mining processing industry. This article is about some experiences in a mining operation where recently ...

Read more...
Case History 170
January 2020 , Editor's Choice
As mentioned in earlier articles, the integral (or I term) in the controller is a brilliant thing. It is an extremely elegant and simple solution for eliminating offset in control. However, like everything ...

Read more...
Case History 169: Tuning a very difficult temperature control loop
November 2019 , Editor's Choice
As I have mentioned in previous articles, Greg McMillan, one of the world’s top control experts, has said that he finds temperature control loops generally the worst optimised processes as most people ...

Read more...
Beyond Capex and Opex
November 2019 , Editor's Choice
How do we finance IT? We identify a need, we test the waters with a PoC (proof of concept), then we get the green light after we prove the value. We know roughly how much it will cost by looking at the ...

Read more...
The technology landscape: insights from 2019 conferences
November 2019, SAIMC , Editor's Choice
Industry leaders and governmental agencies across the globe recognise technology as the cornerstone for economic development. President Cyril Ramaphosa famously posited: “The clear implication for South ...

Read more...
Smart devices for Ex areas: Unbelievably simple mistakes that prevent control.
September 2019, Michael Brown Control Engineering , Editor's Choice, Motion Control & Drives
I am often astounded by finding really basic problems with controls in plants, which have operated that way for years. These problems are so basic that one can only wonder at how these controls could ...

Read more...