power lines
Co-founder and CEO of PowerOptimal

Winner of the 2106 African Utility Week Innovation Hub Award. PowerOptimal will be one of the exhibitors at Energy Revolution Africa, which will be hosted for the first time this year as a co-located event during African Utility Week.

Please start with a short introduction to your company.
PowerOptimal specialises in energy management solutions for South Africa and the whole of Africa. We started out focusing on electricity demand management, but have now branched out into distributed generation as well, since these areas are closely linked. We also realised that the future of energy is like the evolution of the Internet – a network of energy generation, storage and consumption (energy & information flow) that is parallel and multi-directional, not just linear and one-directional like the national grids of the past.

Who founded this company and why?
I founded the company together with Richard Fearon, my partner and mentor. I have always been passionate about innovation, and my last position as the head of commercialisation at the CSIR stimulated my interest in entrepreneurship as the engine of growth and job creation. Energy is equally fundamental to human progress, and so combining energy and entrepreneurship was a natural fit. We were extremely lucky to have met our technical director, Johan Theron (the real genius behind the PowerOptimal product range), and to have convinced him to join us in trying to build a sustainable energy business.

What about the work you do most invigorates and inspires you?
It is a real privilege to be involved in and to hopefully play some small meaningful role in enabling the energy revolution in Africa. There is such a massive need and therefore a huge opportunity to make a difference.

Where in Africa are you active at the moment?
We are mainly active in South Africa, but we are actively looking for opportunities to expand in a number of other African countries.

What have been the biggest challenges you have faced so far?
Developing the right solutions at the right time for the right markets is probably the main challenge.

Do you agree that an energy revolution is underway in Africa?
Most definitely – just like the mobile revolution allowed Africa to leapfrog landline telecommunications infrastructure, so the rapid progress in and falling cost of distributed generation, microgrids, renewables and energy storage will enable Africa to leapfrog old national energy grid infrastructure and be at the forefront of new energy technology penetration.

The developed countries have very large amounts of capital vested in existing infrastructure that need to yield a return to their investors. Furthermore, a small change in the price of energy (or environmental concerns) for the average developed country energy customer is not always a big enough incentive to change. However, for the over 600 million people in Africa without any electricity, going from zero to some level of access can be life-changing. It opens so many opportunities.

How do you feel about the way in in which energy is generated, distributed, used and managed in South Africa as well as other African countries at the moment?
South Africa has the most-developed electricity infrastructure in Africa, and so it is actually the one most stuck in the ‘old’ energy industry paradigm. There are positives and negatives in the South African context: a big positive is the renewable energy independent power producer programme (REIPPP) – a model of public-private partnership, and an example of how private capital can fund infrastructure development. It has made South Africa one of the countries with the fastest-growing renewable energy portfolios. At the same time, the construction of two major coal-fired power stations (and the associated costs and delays) as well as the nuclear power plant ambitions are less exciting. (The nuclear ambitions are perhaps less of a concern from the perspective of its potential role in transitioning towards a clean energy future, and more a concern in terms of governance and management capacity.) South Africa is also behind many countries in terms of enabling and integrating distributed generation.

Each country is different, so one cannot generalise across Africa, but there are promising signs in several countries in terms of the energy revolution – it is happening already. As an example, M-Kopa has brought electricity to over 400 000 homes in East Africa through its innovative business model.

What are you most concerned about when you think about the future of our energy resources?
The most pressing issue is not necessarily that the fossil fuel resources will run out soon, but rather the impact of fossil fuel resource use on the environment. Climate change seems to be accelerating, and the key question is whether we will adapt the energy industry fast enough to avert major problems.

What are you excited about in terms of the future of how energy will be generated, distributed and managed?
The confluence of trends in terms of improvement in performance and reduction in cost of electronics (processors, sensors, LED lights, etc.), electric vehicles, telecommunication and energy (generation and storage options, management, etc.) are driving a global energy revolution – and this time Africa can be one of the leaders!

What do you believe are the greatest challenges for the energy and particularly renewable energy sector?
With lots of vested interests, the industry is slow to change.

Does the responsibility for the move toward renewable energy lie more with individuals (their homes/businesses), corporates or governments? 
Everyone has a shared responsibility, but we must be realistic. When you are fighting for survival, you will not, cannot or should not pay more for energy just because it is renewable. We therefore have to work towards making renewable energy the most cost-effective and easy-to-adopt option.

Are there any particular projects in the energy sector that you are excited about at the moment?
The idea of using a blockchain to enable peer-to-peer energy micro-transactions and accounting is a particularly interesting one.

In the same vein, are there any smaller renewable energy technologies/solutions for home/business use that we should be keeping an eye on?

According to Robert Cormia, who advocates for the ‘electron economy’, the energy revolution is going to start small or locally; i.e. at individual homes and businesses – and grow from there into microgrids, which might later be connected to one another and to a national grid. Thus, the energy revolution is going to start at home. Things like affordable energy storage technologies, integration of electric vehicles into a ‘home grid’ and solar roof tiles are exciting technologies to keep an eye on.

What will your participation be at the inaugural Energy Revolution Africa at African Utility Week this year?
We will have a stand as part of Energy Revolution Africa. The timing could not be better, since we will be launching a new solar PV water heating technology at the event. This technology is directly aimed at supporting the transition to renewables in Africa.

What will your message be to people attending African Utility Week and Energy Revolution Africa?
Grab the opportunity to learn, share your knowledge, build networks and participate in enabling the energy revolution in Africa!