Microlevel electricity grids advantageous for African applications

10th February 2017 By: Donna Slater - Creamer Media Staff Writer and Photographer

Although the price of electricity and the cost of generation in many African countries are major challenges, they also present opportunities to implement clean small-scale energy solutions that use existing infrastructure and are based on Africa’s natural resources, says global engineering, procurement and construction group Black & Veatch sub-Saharan Africa business development director Webb Meko.

Microgrids are low-cost, fast-track, flexible power solutions being applied worldwide, though still relatively new to South Africa and other African countries. When planned and integrated effectively, they provide energy security and can reduce electricity costs and emissions for industrial users, utilities, developers and communities.

He says the advanced systems presented by microgrids are competitively priced and can be deployed quickly, with relatively short design, commissioning and construction timelines. “Other larger-scale alternatives can take years to move through development [to] completion.”

Meko adds that the latest generation of microgrids integrate renewable-energy generators with fossil-fuelled resources, storage and demand management systems, thereby enhancing the reliability of remote power systems while reducing costs and emissions.

Africa is well positioned to similarly embrace microgrid solutions, he says, explaining that the continent’s rapid development and uptake of mobile telecommunications networks and infrastructure signal its willingness to embrace the technology.

“The integration of various power generation sources into a local microgrid helps establish a control system and balances generation with overall load. This system can also be integrated with monitoring software to track performance and maintain the best balance between a microgrid’s various assets,” explains Meko.

In addition, reliability and emissions factors improve when combining solutions such as solar photovoltaic and diesel-fuelled generators, both of which are used primarily in instances of electricity generation deficiency.

Microgrid projects are scalable, add new capacity to the grid and power critical facilities with increased assurance. They can also be planned and built within months using modular equipment – or in 12 months for larger, more complex systems and programmes.

Further, programmatic approaches can be advantageous, as costs can be shared among stakeholders. Lower installation costs can also be achieved through strong project controls and effective programme management. Completing detailed upfront feasibility studies defines the project or programme parameters, along with the associated costs and schedule.

This work, Meko says, is important ahead of implementation, and also includes engaging engineering design experts, equipment suppliers, and engineering, procurement and construction providers, depending on the desired execution approach.

“A fleet of microgrids conceived at programme level can be executed through a front-end engineering and design pilot project . . . then rapidly replicated across multiple sites,” he states, adding that approaching microgrids as a programme allows for the standardisation of equipment and controls, thereby assisting with cost reduction on a per-project basis.

Microgrids can play a critical role in bringing much-needed power to African citizens and offset current grid challenges, he concludes.