By Bobbi Harris, vice president of market strategy & development, Africa Utilities Technology Council (AUTC)Adapting to a more interconnected and digital world is a tremendous transition that African utilities are exploring with intent to better their overall product offering and service delivery. An already complex entity, utilities are seeking better ways to work more efficiently across the value chain and with no better than a global power and energy sector disruptor such as Information and Communication Technology (ICT) to challenge this.
The impact of technology on everyday lives and economic benefits is undeniable across Africa and around the world. Energy and water are our most critical resources, and without safe and reliable supplies, our modern industrial and social systems would not function. These are the critical elements for all other industries from agriculture and food production to retail and banking.
Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is the term for the intersection of communications infrastructure and information technology. ICT is transforming the rules of our world’s economic value systems and industries are being transformed as a result. Electricity, water and natural gas infrastructures are becoming more dynamic,automated and flexible than ever before because of new ICT within the physical infrastructure. At the heart of ICT is telecommunications.
Smart systems rely on ICT
Utilities consider various use case when determining how to upgrade their networks to ‘smart’ systems. Whichever the cases, there are demanding requirements in terms of availability, resilience, latency, geographic coverage, and cost vs. savings, all of which are essential for a utility business. In some cases, utilities are collaborating to build telecommunication networks that will meet each utility’s essential needs, while maintaining data integrity and prioritisation of processes.
Electric Smart Grid deployments offer greater reliability, higher security and maximum energy efficiency, but each benefit relies on power utility operators installing robust ICT infrastructures. Some applications that are enabled include distribution automation, smart meters, demand response, electric vehicle charging, small-scale renewable generation, and dynamic pricing. The outcome of each integration project is a convergence of information and operational infrastructures and business processes that are designed to be fexible and reconfigurable to meet changing utility needs. The infrastructure must be able to transport accurate, reliable and secure data to and from the field and the control centre for the purpose of operational optimisation. ICT has played a critical role in ensuring that operations are provided efficiently, and with the utility industry adjusting to face the multiple challenges of climate change, environmental protection, increasing regulation and the changing demand profiles of both residential and industrial end users, ICT will increase within the industry.
Furthermore, ICT has a role to play in the disruption of the industrial structure by enabling the connection and coordination of communitybased renewable energy installations that may challenge the established methods of energy production and delivery. ICT solutions are aligned to the consumption, distribution, transmission, and business challenges facing the energy industry today. ICT products bring carriergrade performance to the enterprise markets for communications, data processing, data storage, and security protections.
ICT – transforming global societies and economic structures
The utility industry has a key role in the future of our society. Today it faces a multitude of challenges from handling renewables on the grid to ensuring that individual and industrial consumers receive reliable, secure and affordable water and energy. ICT plays a critical role in various parts of the utility supply chain, particularly by enabling operational efficiency improvements. At the same time, digital technologies offer opportunities for transformation within the utility industry by allowing consumers to connect with utilities in new ways. Utilities have become aggregators of data – challenging the ICT technology companies who are suppliers – and a new stage of industrial development will be based on ICT for smart infrastructure.
There are resource efficiency gains from managing information flows, analysing data and managing the distribution of increasing amounts of renewable energy. Information is the driver.
ICT can be leveraged to address key strategic and operational challenges facing utility providers of electricity, gas, and water in Africa. There are many benefits associated with the increased application of ICT in smart infrastructure, including greater flexibility and speed in responding to unforeseen developments, greater coordination between different actors in the utility system, and better flows of information improving efficiency. The utilities sector is facing major challenges. Commercial, regulatory and technology forces are changing the shape of the industry. Utility companies have broad ICT needs, including migrating to modern IT platforms, piloting smart metering/ advanced metering infrastructure, and reworking supply chain to regulatory compliance. In addition, utilities are spending heavily on security, both physical and cyber, to mitigate and prevent potential damage to utility infrastructure.
Today, the utility industry is seeing business challenges that are dynamic and regionally diverse. At the same time, utilities are under pressure to reduce costs, streamline operations, and meet increasingly stringent local, state and national regulations for high security and environmental compliance. As utility networks become increasingly interconnected, even across national borders, they become interdependent for the integrity and continuity of service delivery, making visibility and transparency of network status between entities more important in maintaining confidence. ICT is the key to managing these challenges and advancing the possibilities.