While several large-scale energy projects in Africa are progressing positively, growing global interest in sustainability and renewable energy highlights the need to actively pursue other low-cost, fast-tracked integrated energy solutions that will benefit Africans without access to electricity, says global consulting and engineering, procurement and construction company Black & Veatch.
Black & Veatch sub-Saharan Africa business development director Webb Meko highlights that the proliferation of technology has a “tremendous” amount of potential to help integrate renewable-energy sources into the central grid, which can ensure that critical power-dependent facilities remain on line when there are grid disruptions.
The increasing availability of renewable-energy sources, together with the massive uptake of new technology, presents opportunities to diversify power portfolios, with smart grid initiatives, such as microgrids, increasingly being considered to help build more sustainable, connected and resilient power supplies.
Meko notes that greater access to electricity is still a key challenge for millions of people in African countries, as a result of insufficient and ageing generation, transmission and distribution infrastructure. While local governments have offered plans to address the power shortfall in many instances, a lack of funding and execution capabilities for new build programmes and regular maintenance remain a barrier.
“The traditional models of power generation and transmission need to evolve . . . to support more sustainable operations across the region. A carefully considered power mix is the best way forward for Africa.”
He points out that, while new traditional baseload generation will continue to play a key role in meeting Africa’s power needs – supporting population growth in fast-growing cities and spurring economic development in the industrial sector – Black & Veatch believes that there are great benefits to be gleaned from developing solutions to move power across countries, and into low-density, developing communities.
Meko stresses that a key area of focus on the continent is the development of economical solutions that integrate smart grid controls with microgrids. These not only ensure a more reliable power supply, providing an alternative to the central power grid when failing transformers result in major load-shedding events and unplanned power outages, but can also help to increase access to electricity in rural and difficult-to-reach areas.
“We are optimistic that the stabilisation of many commodity markets will spur greater economic development in Africa and support investment in power sector infrastructure. Accelerating economic growth is a key goal for nations across Africa and there is a strong correlation between power capacity and economic activity. We also see companies seeking to secure their own energy needs as a driving force for the power market.”
Meko notes that inroads into incorporating small-scale energy generation options in Africa are being made, with households installing small-scale embedded generation (SSEG) technology to provide access to power during off-peak hours, as well as feeding excess power back to the central power grid.
Distributed power generation solutions, which help to generate power at the site of consumption often work hand-in-hand with microgrids. These are integrated systems of multiple generation sources such as solar, diesel- and natural gas-fuelled generators and battery storage systems, he notes. Such solutions provide a power generation option that is reliable, resilient and economical by generating power at the site of consumption, with the potential to fill immediate energy gaps by supplying on-site energy for businesses and communities, Meko explains.
“To provide the most impact and the least amount of financial risk, implementers should take a holistic approach. An integrated strategy will ensure a sustainable, functional life span with unabated energy delivery.”
Given the rapid adoption of mobile technology in Africa, Meko further highlights that there is every reason to believe that distributed energy resources will be similarly embraced. He points out that the demand for and subsequent deployment of mobile technology seemingly skipped traditional large-scale landline telecommunications infrastructure builds, and stresses that distributed energy resources could echo this trend, as they are also significantly smaller in scale, compared with baseload projects.
For example, in Mali, more than 200 isolated diesel power distribution grids have been installed. In Kenya and Tanzania, solar home systems that use customer financing and a pay-as-you-go approach through mobile payments have been initiated. In South Africa, off-grid solar systems are being installed in more than 1 700 rural households in the Mbhashe municipality, in the Eastern Cape.
“These are early achievements and there is still plenty of room to expand, particularly in high energy users such as Nigeria, Ethiopia, Côte d’Ivoire and the Democratic Republic of Congo.”
Meko highlights that the key to unlocking growth in distributed generation is to develop compelling business models that benefit energy consumers, utilities, communities and investors. He notes that, in the US and Canada, public–private partnerships have proven successful in allowing communities to benefit from distributed energy programmes, with limited or no capital investment, while utilities and investors can realise financial returns on their investments.