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When Robben Island announced its smart microgrid project, the utility sector was delivered another blow to its command centre – the supply and sale of electricity. It has been a rocky road along this journey and one that could have ended on a completely different note; however, it seems we have reached a point of no return, writes Nicolette Pombo-van Zyl, editor of ESI Africa.

For South Africa, the journey started during the apartheid era, when an abundance of cheap electricity was available to the population’s minority and large power consumers. This took an about-turn when the country marched to democratic freedom.

Unwittingly, a revolution of the electricity sector was now also set in motion.

It was no surprise then to witness recent developments at Robben Island – famously known for being the place where South Africa’s first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela, spent 18 years of his 27 years in prison – with the launch of its off-grid project in October, incorporating clean power and battery storage. [See page 18 of ESI Africa Issue 5 for commentary on developing the ideal smart grid for Africa.]

Access your free digital copy of ESI Africa Issue 5 2017 here.

How did this come about? What was once seen as a secured, profusely available commodity became a widely shared resource in the now democratic state. The state-owned utility, Eskom, floundered to balance its supply and demand for a more diverse customer base – culminating in drastic load shedding measures in 2008. Adding to its woes, Eskom was handed a heavy mandate to intensify its efforts to keep the lights on during the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

With Eskom’s nominal generating capacity in 2005 recorded as 36,208MW, the utility’s reaction was to embark on an aggressive generation and transmission new build programme. This included new coal-fired power plants, a return to service programme, and an increase in peaking plants and refurbishments – all of which would add over 18,000MW.

However, no progressive step is taken without some form of fallout transpiring; in this instance manifesting as a budget shortfall for on-going maintenance.

Without due maintenance of assets, disastrous blackouts and load shedding schedules transpired, resulting in many companies losing income and electricity tariffs going through the roof; with the latest electricity tariff increase application of 19.9% under review at the time of going to print with ESI 5 [Nersa has announced a 5.23% increase].

Advent of the prosumer

These provocations brought about a significant shift for the utility as consumers took matters into their own hands. This set the foundation for a tide of disruptive technology unfolding a revolutionary energy future.

Is this ‘tariff war’ effectively pushing consumers off the grid?

Large, medium and household end-users began investing in rooftop solar PV systems, diesel backup generation, small-scale solar plants (for mines, smelters and agribusiness) and hybrid systems that could have a combination of diesel, solar, biomass, pico-hydro or wind energy.

Not wanting to trail behind the curve, the Department of Energy set up its now internationally celebrated renewable energy auction programme, the REIPPP.

Note that many sub-Saharan African countries are taking strategic steps to stay ahead of transformation such as Cameroon [see page 12, Issue 5] and Uganda [on page 14]. However, in South Africa, the REIPPP has now experienced its own smudge on the horizon as Eskom has dallied on committing to bid rounds 3.5 and 4, refusing to sign any new PPAs.

Leaving 37 IPPs in limbo for over two years is clearly not the way to instil confidence in the industry.

The department’s IPP Office, seemingly undaunted by the set-back, now includes small-scale projects (≤ 5MW) from solar PV, wind and hydro, to landfill gas, biomass and biogas renewable energy sources. The challenges (or opportunities for some) that growth of renewables have wrought on the country’s utility have been how to accommodate the capacity on the current grid infrastructure and manage the base load supply and demand accordingly.

Robben Island’s tech shift

What better place for a revolutionary, hostile take-over by micro-grid technology than Robben Island?

Taking a closer look, the island has an energy usage profile that comprises residential needs, a desalination plant, harbour facilities and offices. In total, it uses almost 2M kWh of electricity annually.

The micro-grid consists of three power production elements. Firstly, the solar PV farm comprises 1,960 mono-crystalline modules with a total of 666.4kW in power supply. The battery bank, consisting of 2,420 lithium-ion battery cells, is able to store 837kWh and output a maximum of 500kVA. The third element is the diesel generators, which are used when no solar or battery storage is available.

Multiple controllers between these power production elements secure a seamless balance of supply and create a smart micro-grid.

Today, Eskom is besieged by corporate mismanagement investigations and implication in the State of Capture proceedings – specifically with reference to its new nuclear build aspirations [see Issue 5 page 52 for an alternative nuclear build solution]. An ill-timed scrutiny of the utility as disruptive technology continues to advance and capture its market share!

Dark days lie ahead for any utility that ignores the tide of change, as there is no doubt that smart micro-grids are the way forward to secure low carbon generation, increase electrification rates and keep the cost of electricity within everyone’s budget.

Access your free digital copy of ESI Africa Issue 5 2017 here.

 

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