“I think the future of energy in Africa will not be utility scale but rather autonomous models of supply and micro-grids”saliem

Exclusive interview with Saliem Fakir, Head of the Living Planet Unit, WWFSA and speaker at the upcoming African Utility Week in Cape Town in May.

1. Tell us more about the WWF’s activities in the utility industry?

Our primary focus is on scaling renewables so we look closely at financing, procurement, technology and grid issues. We produced a study last year that suggests our ambition for renewables at utility scale can be much higher.

We think 20% is a possibility if you took a more robust temporal-spatial placing of different kinds of renewables in relation to grid balancing and transmission losses. Our primary focus in the next three years will also be on distributed generation models. This is an area with a huge potential for untapped growth.

Our work is a lot about the future. We focus a lot on technology trends, especially in storage and grid technologies. We think modular and more adaptable technologies will become the vogue in the future as they can be more tailored to meet the needs of users in a more customised way.

2. Any specific project updates/success stories that you have been a part of in this sector that you can share?
This 20% grid integration ambition is being testing in a separate grid modelling study that is being done by Stellenbosch University. By the time of your conference it should be out for public review. We are also doing a separate study focused on concentrated solar power (CSP). We think CSP needs a more focused and special attention as it has a higher localisation potential than PV and wind. This study has an industrial development focus.

In terms of success stories we hosted a first ever renewables festival in the country. We had 6000 people attend. It was amazing to see the interest, curiosity and the genuine need of citizens to find out not only about renewables but also nuclear, gas, coal and just how the energy system works. We were very encouraged by this and will host a second renewables festival this year.

3. What in your view are the main challenges currently to the energy industry in Africa?

The main challenge in Africa is translating the vast energy abundance it has into affordable energy for its citizens. This is the biggest paradox Africa faces. There is lots of coal, oil, gas, and a vast renewables resource but being able to turn this into something that all Africans can access especially in sub-Saharan Africa given the significant energy poverty that exists. We have to make a dent in this. The energy sector if it gets its distributional model right can be uplifting and a tremendous boost for the African economy. This nexus between energy and development has to be worked on more firmly than is the case. Most energy sources are thought of as extractives and earners of foreign exchange but not well integrated into the rest of the economy.

4. What is your vision for this industry?

For Africa and South Africa we believe that modular cleaner-technologies are where the future needs to go. If, we can bring the costs further down and they can compete with diesel generation. Diesel generation is already expensive, noisy, polluting and require a robust maintenance regime to keep the generators life-span as long as possible. Renewables and other modular clean technologies – once thought of as niche technologies – will increasingly challenge diesel generation in Africa and the utility model. I think the future of energy in Africa will not be utility scale but rather autonomous models of supply and micro-grids. We want to study this closely. You will see a lot more work from us in this area in the next three years.

5. You are part of the programme during this year’s African Utility Week in May – what will be your message at the event?

I will be speaking on distributed generation. My main message is we need to think out of the box and have a closer look at the potential of disruptive technologies to totally change the game and business models of utilities and in South Africa especially the municipalities which are very reliant on electricity sales for revenue. They have to be careful they do not get caught out sleeping if a new wave of technologies break cost and technical barriers in the future.