The integration of distributed resources to the electricity network is accelerating at an unprecedented level. This requires utilities to move ahead with digitisation efforts to manage the complexities brought on by the growing number of flexible services connected to the grid.
In a conversation with Philip Dingle, the marketing director for Lucy Electric, he unpacks what digitalisation means in the context of Africa’s utility landscape.
There has a keen focus on smart applications emerging, which you could say is a shift to a ‘digital Africa’. As you’re at the forefront of this market, why do you believe it is important to speak about digitalisation?
The concept of digitisation links to what was originally portrayed as the three Ds or now being talked of as the four Ds, where the starting point is around decarbonisation. It is the whole climate change agenda; decarbonisation of our activities, our transport, our heating, etc.
Now linked to that is the second of the Ds, which is decentralisation. This is the move to renewable generation (solar, wind, etc.) that we’re seeing in many markets. The third D is digitisation. This is the ability to connect, control and manage all of those activities. The fourth D is democratisation. This is the move from a central monopolistic utility to a more fragmented deregulated electricity network.
A really good recent example of that is the economic recovery plan announced in South Africa that actually puts more emphasis on local renewables and provides municipal utilities with the ability to be able to generate their own power.
Now that we understand how the four Ds fit into the energy sector, what do we mean by digitisation for an African market?
First of all, in the context of what we do at Lucy Electric, I’m going to focus on the distribution side of the smart meter. There’s lots of talk around digitisation and the value and the benefits that can be pulled from smart meters.
When we look about digitisation in terms of the networks, it’s how we can bring the ability to monitor and control multiple assets in one structured way. It’s about having a structured network that is able to deliver at a local level.
Why does digitisation matter to consumers and society, and what do they want from the electrical network?
There’s been considerable talk, and political leadership, about the benefits of electrification of the population in terms of that being a growth driver for economic development. It’s an absolute cornerstone to that.
Through electrification, people can perform work, they can perform functions during the daytime, make use of motors etc. But also then when evening and night-time arrives bars, restaurants, working, lifestyles at home, production can carry on overnight. There’s an element of societal gain through the electrification of the community.
The next level of having created the network is that it then needs to be stable. What we’ve seen in many countries is loadshedding; the networks are unreliable. People are forced to invest in their own resource energy – generator sets – or effectively accept that they have no power and revert back to doing nothing.
So to some respect, having an unreliable power source is almost worse than having none, because you cannot plan. Certainly, if you’re a startup business, trying to develop and grow, you need to be putting your assets, your cash into the growth of that business and not spending it on gensets or other means of supporting your electricity.
It’s absolutely fundamental that the network is reliable and that’s the next level of moving through this electrification of the community. In terms of delivery of that, there needs to be a joined-up strategy between the government expectations, their strategy for rural electrification, all linked to the utilities in their plans.
To paint the picture of what does digitisation mean in a more mature market. If I look at London, the southeast of England, the utility there that covers that area, UK Power Networks, they estimate at the moment that they have some 200,000 independent generators connected to their network.
Those generators can be anything from small scale (less than seven-kilowatt) rooftop PV on a residential home through to 5MW scale PV farms to onshore or offshore wind farms, to anaerobic digestion plants; and also including standby generators, flexibility services that are connected in the economic centre of London.
This gives a very broad feel of the complexity of where networks are going, and hence the need for digitisation to be able to manage that complexity.
Can you give us some examples that we can look into in terms of rural electrification?
I think that if we examine the deployment of renewables – particularly solar and wind that we are seeing many African markets, the use of geothermal in the Rift Valley; if we take that to another market, such as Australia, where they’ve already deployed 22,000, batteries at a local level to provide grid flexibility and support, then what we are able to see is that through the deployment of those flexible resources, the image of how the network will develop in Africa, suddenly doesn’t seem that remote from what I described for the southeast of England. It’s all about building that flexibility of resources across that democratised geography. ESI
Watch the full conversation as Phil Dingle continues to talk about the cost benefits of digitalisation and more.
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