Smart grids way forward for Sub-Saharan Africa – report

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General Electric Power’s grid solution branch co-authored a report with Frost & Sullivan, detailing the opportunities and challenges of deploying smart technology to the grids in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Citing the International Energy Agency (IEA), the white paper highlights that the region shows the lowest rate of electrification in the world, at just 43%. This number translates to 590 million people without access to electricity.

Those regions within SSA that have electricity, meanwhile, struggle with the security of supply, as power outages are frequent. The report says there are as many as 32.7 power outages per month, in one country alone, resulting in significant economic damage. Here, it refers to The World Bank, which has estimated that economic growth in SSA could be accelerated by two percentage points, per year, if businesses had a continuous power supply.

Additionally, popular alternatives, such as kerosene and wood stoves, or diesel generators, incur high operational costs and health issues, especially for children, resulting from the fumes.

The report  further points out that aged system architecture leads to transmission losses far exceeding the globally accepted standard of 7-10%. On average, transmission losses in SSA reach 20%, while in some countries they are at 50%.

Reportedly, the total installed electricity capacity in SSA is around 122 GW, with 22% coming from hydropower, and three quarters from fossil fuels. The authors estimate that 80 GW of renewable energy resources could be added between now and 2030, resulting in 50% renewable energy generation for SSA by then.

GE states that the region has already invested in capacity expansion, but that grid maintenance and monitoring is not keeping up, thus leading to the outages. Smart grid technologies would address this issue, by replacing the need for human-based management of the grid. AI sourcing data from monitoring devices along the grid can reliably take on this task, it says. This development would save expensive investments to upgrade grid infrastructure to improve resilience.

Micro grids

The report further points out that 80% of the households currently without access to electricity live in rural areas. The scarce population distribution in these regions is an economically inhibiting factor to grid expansion. GE, therefore, stipulates that micro-grids are a more economical solution to power rural villages.

Indeed, they authors point out that the current grid in SSA is in a poor state. As such, frequent repairs and maintenance to a system that would not feasibly cater to the needs of establishing 100% electricity supply until 2030, is not the most economical option. They  argue that instead, the region would benefit from ‘leapfrogging’ and establishing a digitized grid making extensive use of IoT and smart-grid applications.

“Transmission and distribution networks are seen to be the weakest links in Africa’s power systems and hence represent a huge opportunity area for improvement,” said Lazarus Angbazo, CEO, GE’s Grid Solutions business, Sub Saharan Africa.

“Going forward, there is a need to move beyond simply maintaining and repairing aged infrastructure. To truly advance the power sector, a holistic approach needs to be adopted; one that ensures sustainability, reliability, and longevity of power supply. By utilizing internet of things (IoT) technology, the smarter grids of tomorrow would deliver all-encompassing solutions based on the convergence of operating technology (OT) with information technology (IT) and incorporating emerging concepts such as distributed generation and energy storage,” he added.

It adds up

On the back of the UN’s high-level political conference discussing the roadmap for the realization of the sustainable development goals, held in New York, the U.S. recently, several reports have been released making similar claims.

Bloomberg NEF, for example, also said that the best way forward for many African regions would be to build both smart- and micro-grids. Gogla, a global association for off-grid solar, even claimed that jumping to micro-grids or off-grid solar could provide households with an additional income equivalent to 50% of the average GDP for households in the region.

This improvement would result from a continuous power supply, the possibility of establishing new businesses due to the new possibilities or hiring more staff.

Leapfrogging

It would not be the first time African economies ‘leapfrog’ to accommodate modern day needs. In many regions, landlines for communication networks are nowhere to be found, while 4G networks are well established in the same regions. Also, the lack of a high density of ATMs and the availability of mobile networks led to mobile phone-based payment systems gaining a strong foothold in many African societies, long before they attained popularity in Europe, or elsewhere.