‘The Future of the African Grid’ – a blog from our Technical Director, Joe Corbett

“Wherever you look around the world, electricity, whether in its generation, distribution, or marketing, is being disrupted by new technology and business models. The industry, and the electricity utility model, which had relied on centralised systems for over a century, is now faced with, among other things, variable distributed generation. We know the pace of change is challenging for the industry and that the grid of the future will look very different from the original design.

What does this mean for Africa and a future African grid? At Gridworks, we have been reviewing the literature on the prospects for the sector and believe, like many commentators, that the continent can leap-frog to a new model, as it has done in telecoms. In addition to hardware innovation (the wires and the grid technology), the data revolution taking place today will have a profound impact on African grids and utilities.

So, what are we finding? Customers are taking advantage of the availability of both affordable generation and the advent of medium to large scale battery storage is changing utilities’ grid development plans. In some parts of the world customers are using changes in regulation to meet corporate and climate needs while tapping into the commercial opportunity to sell excess energy to the grid. In other regions, consumers are looking for solutions that meet their need for 24-hour power that isn’t available from incumbent utilities, while reducing their reliance on diesel.

What this means in practical terms is the emergence of new hardware and software supported by the data revolution; so-called ‘smart’ grids; new payments mechanisms; consumers being replaced by ‘prosumers’; and new funding and ownership models. Regulators and politicians will need to not only keep pace with the changes but also focus on systems that support the important goal of universal access across the continent.

We know that 600m people need access to electricity by 2030. Despite advances in technology and falling costs this will not be achievable with a focus on any one of the above solutions alone. Africa has enormous capacity and growing access to innovative technologies – and it needs a grid that’s designed for a continent and not for one country. It will need continent-wide planning and vision to bring these things together. Below, I look at some of the themes, ideas and innovations that are likely to help the continent create a grid that brings its people and businesses the electricity they need. We’ll be publishing a more detailed paper on this issue later in the Spring so please look out for it.

Public vs Private: The debate is about more than the role of the private sector versus the incumbent, mostly state -owned utilities. Many are arguing that this is not a binary issue and that the universal access objective is more likely to be met as some combination of both models in addition to new and innovative institutional and technological arrangements, some of which are yet to emerge.

Grid Topology: There is a general consensus that the topology of the future electricity grid, driven by the objectives of 100% renewable energy and 100% access, will include large scale transmission interconnections, traditional sub-transmission and medium voltage distribution networks, increased distributed generation connected at medium and low voltage, both in front of and behind the meter, mini and microgrids where service is poor or non-existent and, at the smallest scale, solar-home-systems (SHS). Other common themes in the literature include the use of modern grid scale storage systems and modern data analytics and communications technologies that we have seen transform the telecoms industry and, indeed, the way we live and work.

Distribution Hardware: Many of the equipment standards used in Africa today are based on those developed in South Africa in the 1990’s. It is I believe time to review these standards in, for example, cable specification, transformer sizing, voltage selection etc., and look for reduced costs and efficiencies.

Batteries & Storage Systems: While the recent “revolution” in battery technology has been driven by the requirements of the mobile world, there are other technologies under development which may be more suited to grid scale deployment and less expensive. I believe that storage solutions will play a big part in the future grid for load levelling, delaying capital investment in networks and maximising the use of renewables. This will also include “distributed” or virtual storage plants available to the system operator.

Data Revolution / Digitalisation: Power grids have always been “smart”, but the advent of data that we can harvest, limitless processing power and “machine-learning” systems mean that traditional energy monitoring systems and off-line number crunching have been overtaken by new platforms that can automate outage restoration and optimize the performance of the distribution grid. These new systems can identify the location of faults and then isolate and restore them. The new systems can conserve energy through voltage reduction; peak demand management; and provide support for microgrids and electric vehicles. Other systems, such as Fault Location & System Restoration (FLSR), linked to Geographic Information Systems, and customer interfaces through smart phones and modern social media, are all part of the package. While these technologies may sound futuristic, this is happening in some countries right now, where, for example, utilities are testing the use of social media and call centre data, coupled with Advanced Distribution Management Systems (ADMS) to identify the location of faults and quickly dispatch the repair crew.

I believe that the vision should be of an open advanced distribution management system platform on which we integrate apps as the need arises and where we can we use cloud-based systems to optimise scale and cost.

Mini-Utilities: Mini-grids offer one of the most important opportunities to connect new consumers in Africa and typically use a hybrid PV/storage/back-up generating plant coupled to a medium-voltage and low-voltage distribution system. Although ADMS systems are associated with the traditional distribution companies, I believe that scaled ADMS systems have an important part to play in the mini utilities that Gridworks are developing, such as the Essor project in DRC. This will include advanced systems for optimisation of the hybrid generation plant both for design and later operation phases with built in machine learning and artificial intelligence to both improve plant operations by maximising the renewable energy contribution and customer service during the lifetime of the plant, and to inform future plant extensions as demand grows. In addition, there is an opportunity to revolutionise metering, billing and collection systems for the benefit of both the utility and the consumer.

Transmission: I believe that Large Scale Wind, PV, and Hydro is best shared between countries and regions by big transmission interconnects (both Regional, Continental and Inter-Continental) including refurbished High-Voltage/Extra High-Voltage connections and gigawatt-scale HVDC. Regionally and locally, better use can also be made of existing lines by increasing the capacity of these lines using newer technologies such as upgrading the voltage or the use of innovative Flexible AC Transmission Systems equipment or indeed, in some cases, simple refurbishment.

I also think that in the more distant future, new high capacity underground pipes with very low resistance will be developed for very large grid interconnects; but I expect to be retired by then!”

Thanks for reading.

Joe

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