By Dwibin Thomas, Cluster Automation Leader at Schneider Electric

In world where AI and Machine Learning have moved beyond Sci-Fi, one would expect that basic services would utilise the benefits that come with advanced technologies.

At the forefront should be utilities – we are all acutely aware of South Africa’s energy challenges; however, the provision of power is also a significant hurdle in some of the world’s biggest economies.

Grids in Europe and other mature economies in Asia, such as Japan, are generally very reliable but both North American grids and emerging economy grids are under constant strain. Power outages and interruptions in the US still cost Americans at least $150 billion each year.

In a nutshell, we are not alone in our struggle to provide stable, 24/7 power to households and business across the country.

The grid – the digital frontier

The burning question is, how did we get here and what can we do to fix it? Also, we must consider that renewable energy is becoming a major Distributed Energy Resource (DER). The number is growing at a staggering pace – the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that from 2017 to 2020, there was 179 GW of distributed solar added to grids across the world.

South Africa is in the privileged position that it has an abundance of natural resources – our mix of solar and wind power is noteworthy and makes the goal of Government’s Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Programme (REIPPP) to produce 17 800 megawatts (MW) of electricity from renewable energy sources by 2030 attainable.

Already, we’re seeing many South Africans (household and business) taking advantage of rooftop solar energy options to keep the lights on.

To realise our goals of not only stabilising the grid but also future proofing it for DERs like renewable energy, we must address the issues at hand. Eskom’s supply and distribution networks combined with municipalities’ own infrastructure issues are creating a massive challenge.

Internal factors, such as equipment maintenance issues, human error, technology malfunctions, and aging infrastructure, are some of the contributing factors to downtime and subsequent load shedding.

Furthermore, visibility into the distribution network is seriously lacking. One of the country’s biggest municipalities can monitor only 30% of substations at any given time. This means 70% of these substations are running without any way to predict or prevent faults.

Utilities must implement condition-based maintenance, enabling predictive as opposed reactive maintenance. This will allow both Eskom and municipalities to detect the onset of asset degradation by continuously monitoring asset performance using data from embedded sensors and prediction engines.

System complexity also drives human error. Because data collection has skyrocketed in recent years, due in part to the rise of devices like smart meters, grid or power plant operators can become overwhelmed with information.

New technology and predictive analytics can provide clarity. Situational awareness — having the right information at the right time so operators can make the right decisions — is being improved through visual situation awareness systems. These allow for faster, better, and more accurate decision making by presenting data in a manner that’s easier to process and more actionable.

Last, and by no means least, SA municipalities must start adopting the above and the many other grid optimisation technologies at its disposal to distribute power autonomously from Eskom, particularly when IPPs come online at municipal level.

The good news is that we are already working with municipalities to future proof their infrastructure, ensuring that their distribution networks feature the newest smart grid technologies that provide full visibility into assets, integrate with DERs such as renewable energy and ultimately mitigating failure and potential downtime.

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