Featured image: Stock

With the evolution of Africa’s electricity industry, utilities are adding more smart devices and automation to make smarter decisions, writes Mlungisi Mkhwanazi, Director of Africa Utilities Technology Council.

Applications for smart devices, renewable energy, distribution and substation automation and consumer usage data for prepayment prepayment and conservation are driving the need for real-time two-way communications and more robust SCADA systems. For utility transmission and distribution engineers, this means a disparate need to upgrade their strategies, communications and technologies for Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition systems.

This article originally appeared in Issue 1 2018 of our print magazine. The digital version of the full magazine can be read online or downloaded free of charge.

SCADA systems, in one form or another, have been employed since the 1960s. These early systems allowed for human-machine interactions but were not nearly sophisticated enough to run an electric grid. As the electric grid has grown and the demand for reliable electricity has skyrocketed, so have the technologies available to electricity utilities. SCADA systems today offer quality monitoring, renewable integration, volt-VAR control and the ability to add commercial assets to utility infrastructure like street lighting control – all without sacrificing optimal operation of the network and power quality on the grid.

Keeping abreast of today’s infrastructure needs, utilities are forced to invest in upgrading the ‘backbone’ to SCADA systems and new communication tools in order to have the fastest access to real-time data to accurately control T&D infrastructure. Many current systems operate primarily at the substation level, but upgrades are necessary to calculate data from line sensors that are becoming more common to expand control to a more granular level.

Significant upgrades will be required not only to analyse the data provided by these sensors, but also to process the complex algorithms that effectively launch responses to the continuous stream of data they provide. Funds are required for the extension of the system to all primary and secondary substations to increase visibility and control so as to improve efficiency and effectiveness.

Smart cities on the horizon

The evolution of Smart City initiatives to improve the electricity utility power infrastructure has brought with it a number of opportunities for improving efficiencies, but along with those benefits come challenges in the effort to assure safety, security and reliability for utilities and consumers alike. Smart Cities require Smart Utilities and Smart Utilities require automation over real-time telecommunications infrastructure. The ability for a utility to remotely monitor and control network smart devices is a means of achieving this reliability and demand efficiencies for the utility as a whole. With SCADA systems to control the flow of electricity throughout the network, additional planning and forethought is required to ensure all possible measures for preventing compromise are considered.

SCADA systems are used for monitoring, gathering, and analysing real-time environmental data from a simple plant or a complex nuclear power plant. Modern system networks use ‘always-on connections’ and are able to communicate via the internet. While the next generation of SCADA will rely heavily on cloud computing to have the processing power necessary to analyse continuous streams of data from thousands of sources simultaneously on larger grids. A true smart grid is capable of distribution automation, and allows for African utility T&D technicians to call upon their SCADA systems to make the necessary decisions that carry out millions of tasks.

The challenge of DERs

Utilities that receive generation from a variety of Distributed Energy Resources (DERs) provide alternative yet unreliable generation levels (such as wind, solar and hydroelectric) and require much closer monitoring of incoming voltage levels. Feeder line control sensors on smart grids are able to notify utilities immediately when a power disruption occurs – as well as supply the precise data on where the disruption is physically located – and can redirect power from other sources whilst crews are dispatched if repairs are needed.

This requires a SCADA system that is able to understand the data it is receiving quickly enough to make the necessary adjustments without human intervention. Where voltage is more or less optimised when it enters the substation, effective monitoring can still yield significant efficiencies by helping utilities raise power factors on feeder lines. It can also give utilities the information they need to manage loading by providing utility engineers the information they need to execute voltage optimisation and healing decisions. Doing so also maximises the value of capital investments by reducing overload on equipment like transformers, effectively extending the useful lifespan of these assets and gaining the most value from DERs across the system.

Cybersecurity

The security of electricity supply in Africa is threatened by many sources: from cybercrimes to the run-down state of the electricity distribution system. Any interruption in the supply of power can lead to widespread blackouts, potentially causing irreparable damage to equipment and impacting across many different levels of society. However, help is at hand with advancements in technology increasingly providing remote control and monitoring of the power grid through the SCADA system and substation automation. This decreases the long-term costs of power T&D control, increases the efficiency and motivates the transition to a smart grid.

New technologies and telecommunications offer great opportunities, but these opportunities may well be a threat where cybersecurity is ignored. Providing adequately secure equipment is one of the most significant problems to ensuring cyber safety and decreasing the potential of a cyber-attack on the smart grid. Therefore, SCADA systems must be hardened against detection and the appropriate automated responses programmed. Threats, risks and security requirements must be considered in the smart grid and utility leaders will need to determine the best architectural and security strategies to fight these attacks. Constant surveillance and monitoring of cybersecurity vectors need to be undertaken as the modern utility cannot afford to be caught unawares in the face of the rising threat levels to critical infrastructure.

Progress!

One example of a progressive utility comes from Namibia. According to Erongo RED, the distribution company has plans the install fibre optic communication for its substation to enhance cyber-protection and SCADA system communications. Equipment currently installed requires fibre optic communications to optimise operational functionality and run the network in the most effective manner. The utility’s CEO, Fessor Mbango, and his team must ensure shareholder value by driving key strategic decisions such as this. By implementing state of the art telecommunications to SCADA systems with enhanced cybersecurity, utilities like Erongo RED reduce the risk of a cyber-attack and maintain secure service delivery.

Ultimately, Africa can have a robust electric power supply system if its electricity generation, transmission, distribution and control functions are kept up to date with secure telecommunications and SCADA for the next generation. All stakeholders need reassurance that utility assets and investments will be protected, and that new technologies will provide a clear benefit to all. ESI

This article originally appeared in Issue 1 2018 of our print magazine. The digital version of the full magazine can be read online or downloaded free of charge.


Africa Utilities Technology Council (AUTC) is a non-profit trade association shaping the future of utility mission critical technologies and is an association partner of ESI Africa. www.AfricaUTC.org