Dan Brose

Each year, the US-based Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI)’s Technology Transfer Awards recognise industry leaders and innovators at the vanguard of adopting new technology and spearheading the application of research findings. ESI Africa spoke with the 2017 award winner from Eskom, Dr Prathaban Moodley.

Congratulations to you and to Eskom on picking up the 2017 EPRI Technology Transfer Award. This must have undergone a demanding process – Dr Moodley, please elaborate on this award-winning project.

Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) recognises the leaders and innovators who collaborate and transfer research into applied results within their organisations.  The people and companies honoured with Technology Transfer Awards exemplify the innovation, collaboration and leadership that drive progress in the industry and benefit society.  Nominations are received from EPRI staff members and companies, and winners are selected by peers at global power utilities based on the criteria: i) successful application of research results; ii)  magnitude of the problem solved; iii) impact and benefits of the application to the company, customers, and/or society at large; and iv) leadership, innovation, and initiative demonstrated.

Eskom along with the following global power utilities have been honoured with the EPRI Technology Transfer Awards for various collaborative EPRI research projects. Other global power utility award winners include: Alliant Energy, Appalachian Electric Coop, Austin Energy, Central Hudson, CFE-Mexico, Exelon, Hydro One, National Grid, Middle Tennessee Electric Membership Corp, Salt River Project, Tennessee Valley Authority and Xcel Energy.

The impact of DER is certainly disrupting the industry and this research will assist utilities to keep pace with global industry challenges.  Dr Moodley, how does it feel to receive the EPRI recognition?

I am proud of the entire team that has contributed to the collaborative research effort. Eskom has always valued and invested into research and innovation initiatives and have partnered with similar minded research organisations over many decades. In particular, this recognition is dedicated to the Eskom’s research team, Eskom engineering colleagues and our EPRI research colleagues who tirelessly contribute towards innovation that ultimately benefits each and every citizen of our country.

Eskom has invested into research and achieved many great accomplishments in the past such as the first power utility to research, commission and operate the highest transmission voltage at 765kV in the 1980s or being the first power utility to research, design and deploy dry cooling at coal fired power stations in the 1970s. I believe that this achievement recognises our journey towards achieving greatness.

Those are great research achievements dating back many years. Dr Moodley, is this level of innovation continuing whereby South Africa is contributing to revolutionising the energy industry?

We are very excited about the recently Eskom Exco and Board approved 5-year research programme, which is ambitious and challenges our research teams to adopt innovative and out of the box thinking approaches to solve the most significant challenges facing the power utility and our industry and will attempt to push the boundaries of science and engineering.

The programme has identified 12 grand challenges, which address three fundamental questions:

  1. what future generation businesses and technology choices should the industry invest into for long term sustainability;
  2. how does Eskom maintain and operate existing generation, wires and retail businesses under constrained resources leveraging on new technologies and advanced analytics; and
  3. how does Eskom adapt its business to leverage on the imminent technology disruptors and grow new business.

We believe that the focus on 12 challenges are the most valuable needs for Eskom and the South African industry. It aims to galvanise all interested stakeholders and this vision resonates with many of our global counterparts. We partner and collaborate with innovative organisations that have similar vision as ours.

What is the importance of streamlined hosting capacity, which has earned you this award, to the utility sector?

The amount of DER that any distribution feeder can accommodate or host, without adversely impacting system reliability or power quality, varies from distribution system to distribution system and within feeders in a system. The factors that determine the adequacy of planning engineering studies on a feeder is determined by: a) the size and location of the DER plant; b) distribution feeder characteristics including the existing load; and c) the type of DER technology.

Planning of the DER on distribution feeders will optimise the hosting capacity of the feeder and hence avoid the need to build additional distribution lines and substations.

Amongst the criteria that EPRI looks for are industry leaders and innovators. Attaining this level of leadership is rooted in acquiring inspiration from others. Tell us about your role model.

My role model is Steve Jobs and is probably a role model to many innovators and entrepreneurs. At the time, computing technology was only available to large corporations.  Jobs and Steve Wozniak had a passion and vision to bring this technology to the benefit of every home. This passion drove him together with a small team of like-minded people to develop and build a home computer product in his parent’s garage that changed the world. His single minded focus on producing a great product to the benefit of society produced efficiencies and productivity that rivalled corporations such as International Business Machines Corporation (IBM). It demonstrated that a small team with passion and focus can beat resource rich large corporations!

This combination of passion, single minded focus and leveraging on technology advancements brought Apple from the brink of closure to becoming one of the greatest companies in the world. The belief that technology advancements should be for the benefit of the people has resulted in Apple going on to disrupt itself.  Jobs never wanted to maintain the status quo and protect Apple’s products, he would go on to innovate products that would cannibalise Apple’s own products. Apple’s products combine the humanities with science and always strive for perfection in the creation of great products.

What values do you demonstrate as a leader/innovator that others can learn from?

The fundamental value that drives me is being passionate about the work I do, knowing that my research work will ultimately improve the lives of the people living in South Africa and Africa. Knowing each one of us has the ability to become great and contribute this greatness to the benefit of society. Focus is critically important, it is about saying no to the hundreds of good ideas and focusing on the limited great ideas and seeing these through to completion. Simplification of the solution is paramount and requires deep thinking and understanding of the entire challenge for any research recommendation to be adopted. Partner and collaborate with organisations that compliment your team’s core skills. Leverage on technology advances and disruptors to leap frog.

What invigorates and inspires you about the work you are doing at Eskom?

It is the opportunity to make a difference to every person in the country or in the continent. The power utility business model that has been in operation for over a century created by Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla will fundamentally change over the next decade. The advent of technology disruptors will affect and change every utility across the globe.

The touch screen disrupted the entire Nokia business model. In the power utility space, there are several imminent technology disruptors that the organisation can either leverage on and thrive into the future or ignore at your peril. These include the use of information technology to achieve a smart grid; the maturing of solar PV technology; the decrease in prices and economy of scale promise of storage; adoption of electric vehicles; application of advanced analytics and internet of things.

What are you excited about in terms of the future of how energy will be generated, distributed and managed?

Over the past 100 years, the centralised generation model has dominated the electricity landscape, research over this time produced mere incremental improvements. The monotony has not attracted the brightest engineering minds to the industry. However, the next decade and decades to follow will be the most exciting time to be involved in the power utility space. There are several technology disruptors that promise to challenge the status quo and demolish the barriers to entry.  Thus the brightest minds in a research space are given the rare opportunity to invent the future, leverage technologies and shape the world of the power utility.

What are you most concerned about when you think about the future of our energy resources?

It is my belief that given the opportunity that a child in Africa can change the world and create the next Google or Apple. These children may solve the biggest challenges like finding a cure to HIV/Aids or cancer. This requires a concerted effort to give our children all the opportunities and infrastructure. Every child should have access to electricity to have a warm meal before they sleep or to have a light above their bed to study. This is the reason power utilities like Eskom exist. Therefore the future decisions of our energy resources must be to ensure that every citizen has access to affordable and reliable electricity. We need to use the abundant solar, wind and coal resources that we have. We should not naively follow other countries’ policies but base our decisions on affordability and energy security.

What is your personal vision for the energy sector in South Africa?

The power utility of the future in South Africa that is able to transform to a highly flexible and agile organisation. The utility that fully appreciates that there are various customer segments with varying needs and is able to develop and deploy efficient and reliable solutions based on technology advances and disruptors to meet and exceed these customer’s unique expectations.

This may result in a change to simultaneous multiple agile operating models such as: an adaptation of centralised generation for the power intensive segments that bring the efficiencies and reliability of supply for the sector. While a hybrid approach of distributed energy resources and grid tied supply for other customer segments that value this approach. The electrification challenge is achieved by adopting the concept of an intelligent microgrid with strong community involvement in the operation and maintenance thereof.

What message do you wish to share with your peers throughout Africa?

Streets in Kimberly, a small town in Africa, were lit up with electric light bulbs within years of Thomas Edison’s invention, and was switched on before London. Sadly over 130 years later, continental Africa remains scarcely electrified. The electrified world has invested substantially and has been locked into the technology choices and the traditional centralised generation, long distance transmission and distributed model.

Africa has a huge opportunity to leverage on technology disruptors that will leap frog itself into the next generation of the future power utility model. The distributed model of generation near the load areas eradicates the need for large centralised generation and transmission infrastructure, thus substantially reducing investment costs. Leveraging on technology advances and disruptors will ensure that Africa has a competitive advantage, knowledge and skills before the rest of the world. Similar to the innovate approach in the 1970s and 1980s in Eskom, Africa has the skills and ability to develop world first innovations that are local solutions for local challenges and can be exported to the rest of the world.                                                                                                        

About Dr Moodley

MoodleyDr Prathaban Moodley has been with Eskom for 16 years in various roles, he currently holds the position of Technology Strategy & Planning Manager at Eskom Research, Testing and Development.

Dr Moodley’s focus areas include: Transmission, Distribution, Asset Management, Network Planning & Operations and Smart Grids. Moodley holds the following degrees from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg: BSc (Eng), MEng (Distinction) and PhD degrees in Electrical Engineering. He is a registered Professional Engineer with the Engineering Council of South Africa.