The global energy sector is faced with the dual challenge of meeting growing energy demand, while simultaneously needing to lower carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the energy system, says MIT Energy Initiative director Robert Armstrong.
Speaking at the twenty-first Power and Electricity World Africa conference, in Johannesburg, on Tuesday, he said that, in order to increase energy availability on the continent, the energy sector will need to shift its focus away from fossil fuel resources or deal with the CO2 emissions from these sources.
He conceded that the impact of climate change was real and warned that CO2 and other greenhouse-gas emissions need to be reduced in order to avoid “unimaginable consequences to society”.
“Because most of the global electricity is produced through large central generation facilities . . . electrification is the place to go, initially, to deal with CO2 emissions.”
He pointed out that, although increasing use of distributive energy resources – such as solar and wind – can provide carbon-free electricity, these are, at the same time, intermittent.
“We need to learn how to operate generation in this new world of intermittent renewable energy sources. Discovering how best to exploit this opportunity is one of the challenges for grid operatives,” Armstrong said.
Further, he explained that digitisation has been a major enabler that allows consumers to not only participate in the energy markets, but also to access the data on their energy use.
With digital capability, there is an opportunity to build different kinds of grids. Instead of connecting everybody to the grid, there is an opportunity for consumers to make use of minigrids or offgrid solutions.
Armstrong noted that the MIT Energy Initiative has piloted the use of satellite data to identify loads in Africa.
“With those loads and the solar resources in the area, we are able to map out a possible grid for the region and use a variety of grid configurations based on a low, medium or high load scenario, in order to construct cost estimates for building the microgrid,” he explained.
He noted that this is based on the layout, the cost of solar, its storage and, if allowed, diesel generation as a back-up.
However, he warned that the cost of energy systems rise as the reliability and demand on the system increases.
“Solar is a rapidly growing technology, but the energy sector needs to reduce the cost of storage systems in order to make universal access more affordable, going forward,” he said.