While the obligation to deliver safe, reliable power to customers through ageing assets is paramount, utilities face a rapidly evolving market as independent power producers (IPPs) and distributed generation solutions drive innovation and investment, says engineering, procurement and construction services provider Black & Veatch sub-Saharan Africa regional manager Joseph Mahendran.
“Distributed energy resources like wind, solar and battery storage, supported by their increasing cost-competitiveness with fossil fuel generation and changes in policy and consumer demands, are forcing utilities as well as municipalities in Africa to find ways to produce, transmit and distribute electricity in a sustainable and efficient manner, or risk losing customers.”
He adds that utilities have to embrace smart integrated energy infrastructure that can drive greater efficiency from existing resources, while preparing for energy systems of the future.
“For example, digital management of distributed energy sources has already begun and brings opportunities for IPPs to augment and, in some cases, compete with traditional utility services,” he points out.
Mahendran notes that the industry is seeing the beginning of a convergence of Internet of Things, telecommunications, advanced analytics, supply and management of electricity, in which mobile devices can be used to remotely control or switch on and off primary power plant equipment.
“These are the innovations that we will see in the energy sector and, as a result, power utilities and municipalities will have to adopt these technological innovations to be able to operate power systems efficiently to meet consumer demands.”
Electric utilities are awakening to the power of innovation in terms of generation assets, and with the shift to decentralised, digital grids, the broadening appeal of more affordable renewables and low-carbon power sources.
He says decentralisation is occurring through off-grid and microgrid systems, while renewables, distributed energy and smart grids need new capabilities, new business models and policy guidelines to drive growth and provide the flexibility for incumbent service providers to adjust to the marketplace.
Transitioning traditional networks to a smarter grid has been in progress for a while, but the last five years have seen the industry crank up its investment in grid modernisation efforts as advances in sensors and metering have fueled the rise of data analytics as a means to optimise versus catalog system performance.
“Historically, utilities have battled for limited capital resources to build new capacity or replace ageing assets. “Today, the game has changed as service providers invest in technology to maximise and expand networks capable of supporting the influx of new technologies such as microgrids, electric vehicles and energy storage,” he explains.
Energy storage technologies have been advancing for decades, backed by a growing awareness that storage holds the key to unlocking the world’s energy future.
As storage technology improves and costs fall, it becomes central to the rise of wind and solar as baseload power sources by eliminating intermittency – a key hurdle in many markets.
Looking ahead, he indicates that greater focus will also fall on power delivery infrastructure as traditional central generation baseload units give way to utility-scale renewable projects and smaller distributed energy resources. More nimble transmission and distribution networks can support the enhancement of natural energy resources such as solar and wind because it is readily available, is cost-effective and reduces the adverse impacts on the environment.
“African countries have a great opportunity to develop broader, more progressive guidelines and policies that encourage electricity sector innovation and support the introduction of new technologies at parastatal and municipal levels for modernised electricity generation and reduction in carbon emissions,” Mahendran concludes.