In conversation with Mlungisi Mkhwanazi, the Director of the Africa Utilities Technology Council (AUTC), he reveals that the changing playing field in the ICT space is motivating utilities to examine the benefits of keeping ICT in-house versus having it deployed by a communications provider.
The AUTC conference sessions at African Utility Week and POWERGEN Africa will concentrate on the technology application in the energy sector, in terms of creating and maintaining critical infrastructure that is resilient and dependable.
Because of its affiliation with UTC, AUTC’s conference track will host speakers from other parts of the globe who have had experience with the challenges and opportunities of private and in-house ICT deployments by utilities. These experts will share experiences to help to avoid the known pitfalls.
Mlungisi, what can delegates expect from your conference session this year?
Given the focus on 5G, AUTC will provide an overview of the recently released UTC/AUTC whitepaper entitled: Cutting Through the Hype: 5G and Its Potential Impacts on Electric Utilities. We also realise that the model that currently works best for any utility is to have telecoms operated in-house because of the high levels of reliable services required by utilities and given the future of the electric grid requiring a more flexible grid – a situation only enabled by communications.
Telecoms can then offer carrier services to the IT department for enterprise purposes – billing, website, etc. At the same time, the telecoms providers need reliable electricity to deliver their products. Utilities and telecoms depend on each other and both use similar OEMs and have similar supply chain requirements.
Do you think that the merger of utilities, ICT and telecoms is inevitable?
Every utility needs critical infrastructure in order to offer uninterruptible services to their customers. Since utilities provision telecoms networks that are both wireline (copper or fibre) and wireless, AUTC’s focus is on issues that impact these networks and the technologies they enable, such as SCADA, sensors, and teleprotection. These issues include access to reliable and affordable radio-spectrum (needed to deploy any wireless network or device), OT/IT convergence, cybersecurity and issues surrounding deployment of fibre optics, just to name a few.
Therefore, AUTC believes that there’s enough space for the three entities to exist in a mutually exclusive environment. The ICT and telecoms entities’ business case tends to look at profitability and expand in relation to the end users’ location. However, the utilities’ business case is not driven by profitability but by the coverage of the existing and future assets in the network. The focus for the three entities is fundamentally different. Utilities will move mountains to get SCADA from an outstation/end-point, whilst in the ICT and telecoms space, it’s a numbers game.
What are the main challenges in the current utility market?
Utilities are asking how they can embrace renewables and remain sustainable with new business models and favourable revenue streams, which allow their infrastructure and systems investments to be maximised. Although the cost of renewable projects has been decreasing over the last five years, the funding remains an issue due to geo-political tensions in some regions. Some of these challenges can be solved with the appropriate communications technology that maximises utility infrastructure through greater understanding of grid operations as renewables are added.
What is AUTC’s main message at this year’s event?
Collaborative engagement and knowledge sharing between utilities both in Africa and globally is essential to ensure reliable electricity with integrating renewable energy. It is imperative that we learn from utilities worldwide in order to cross-pollinate our experiences and avoid sink holes from a technological angle. Education becomes expensive and painful when you only learn from your mistakes. Improving access to clean water, reducing electricity outages due to load shedding, sourcing funding for mega projects and exposure to working/thriving utilities remain the leading motivations for Africans to meet in this fashion. ESI
Visit the Smart Energy Knowledge Hub on 14-16 May in Cape Town at the African Utility Week and POWERGEN Africa conference and exhibition to speak with experts on ICT, metering and demand management.