HomeFeatures/AnalysisOn the brink of despair, we need smart grids

On the brink of despair, we need smart grids

Loadshedding is back in South Africa, and this is turning the public other means, like private utilities and smart grids, to support their electricity demands.

Brought on by various challenges, loadshedding is scheduled interruption to the country’s electricity supply industry. Last week Eskom increased the severity to Stage 4 – requiring the country to shed 4,000MW, but not everyone was affected to the same degree.

With the support of the 180MW Steenbras Dam hydroelectric plant, Cape Town surrounds can reduce the stage for its residents. It is not adequate protection against loadshedding. Still, it does reduce the severity.

Meanwhile, in the Free State province, a privately-owned electricity distribution network is doing its utmost to keep power supply steady and affordable. The Damplaas Kragbron utility in Petrus Steyn was issued a private distribution licence by NERSA, the national regulator.

Also, support from utility-scale renewable energy IPPs and smaller distributed energy resources (DERs) are ready to make an impact. The market is slowly opening and many businesses and individuals will pounce on the opportunity to support the grid.

Will allowing more renewable energy and DERs onto the grid be enough and in time? What will the impact be on the power system’s ageing transmission and distribution networks?

Do private utilities have a place on the SA energy market?

Since industry experts predict the loadshedding situation is unlikely to improve into 2022 and beyond, any change to the market that supports the grid should be welcomed. Given this situation, an impending court case against the Damplaas Kragbron utility makes little sense.

The court case I am referring to is the South African Local Government Association (SALGA), seeking to declare that municipalities should have the sole right to distribute electricity.

The private power company owns 320km of power lines and 175 transformers. It purchases bulk electricity from Eskom and resells it for an additional fee to a mainly farming community. The private utility’s tariffs are currently 13% lower than what Eskom charges its direct customers and about 20% cheaper than the community’s local municipality, states Sunday newspaper Rapport.

If SALGA’s argument wins, Eskom as a direct distributor to customers, will likely come under the microscope.

The case does have merit in that municipalities are losing much-needed revenue to private distributors. However, municipalities and SALGA must first address why private utilities are taking hold of the market share.

One reason is because of poorly maintained power networks that are unable to supply electricity even when generation capacity is running smoothly. Municipal managers must address this situation.

How could smart grids help local municipalities?

While taking a deep dive into mismanagement and operation and maintenance challenges, it is an excellent time to explore the digitalisation of the network. Leap over the hurdles before it is too late to catch up to the newest technology advances.

These solutions address renewable energy intermittency challenges on the grid, reduce fault levels and network capacity issues resulting from the growth in distributed energy resources. No municipality can ignore the signs even as they grapple with overcoming their poor service delivery records.

I invite managers and engineers from municipalities to tune in on 9 November at 14h00 South African time to discuss Powering up SMART Networks. Registration is completely free as this information sharing conversation is so vital to the future of our grid, especially as we seek to develop the smart grids of the future.

Spend 60 minutes with us to learn about onsite experience in delivering the understated resilience of smart switchgear. Having switchgear that is self-sufficient and intelligent enough to manage the network and provide assurance against unforeseen events is one way to bolster against shocks coming from the energy transition.

Until next week.
Editor, ESI Africa  

Nicolette Pombo-van Zyl
Nicolette is the Editor of ESI Africa print journal, ESI-Africa.com and the annual African Power & Energy Elites. She is passionate about placing African countries on the international stage and is driven by the motto "The only way to predict the future is to create it". Join her in creating a sustainable future through articles and multimedia content.