Africa enjoys an abundance of renewable energy sources but surprisingly, millions are still without grid electricity. Africa’s rich renewable resources can improve access to electricity services by adapting smart grid technologies to meet the continent’s electricity growing demand. Unfortunately, the harnessing of these resources has been slow. An astounding 92% of Africa’s hydropower potential has yet to be realized. Most African countries are using fossil fuels instead of renewable sources. South Africa, for instance, uses coal as its primary energy source-more than 90% of the country’s power is generated from coal.
In addition to this, existing power infrastructure is ageing and therefore unable to keep up with the current growth in power demand. The infrastructure is inadequate, unreliable and stagnant. In South Africa, for instance, the utility has been forced to build new power stations to cope with the nation’s escalating demand and low reserve margins. This has led to a steep increase in power tariffs.
According to Komla Folly-Associate Professor: Department of Electrical Engineering, University of Cape Town, South Africa, who spoke recently at the African Utility Week 2013, the current trends in Africa’s energy supply and consumption are unsustainable-economically, environmentally and socially.
These facts alone are reason enough for the continent to adopt a smart grid. The smart grid will assist with renewable energy integration and give more people access to power in a more efficient and cost-effective manner.
But according to Professor Folly, the continent faces a number of challenges that must be overcome first. Many of these problems are shared by other more developed countries across the globe:
Policies and government interest
African countries have not put firm policies in place for the development and deployment of smart grids. Policies make the process easier for strategies to be put in place and this is what will attract investors
No standards and interoperability
It will take many years to create a common standard. Constant research and negotiation will put this right eventually. This is a global issue.
Ageing and outdated infrastructure
All African countries share the same problem: ageing infrastructure. The grid is outdated and is struggling to meet the growing demand for power. The grids need a major upgrade before they can support smart grid development
The electricity system requires new technology and infrastructure for transmission and distribution. There is also no integrated communication platform
High cost of grid upgrades
Distribution systems account for the majority of smart grid costs
Smart technology produces large quantities of data which has to be managed in order for the system to run efficiently and smarter
Transition from legacy systems
Old systems may not be easily upgraded with new technology. New technology may have to be specifically formulated. Early retirement of old equipment (not compatible with the new technology) may pose a problem
For the smart grid to work, the consumer has to come on board. Dynamic pricing may be an incentive for consumers to change their energy consumption patterns
Smart grid data flow between utilities and customers must be safeguarded against hackers
Utilities will need to hire (or train) staff with the relevant skills to operate highly sophisticated equipment
Smart grid development in Africa seems to be a far-off dream but experts believe it is possible. Professor Folly explains that the responsibility falls on Africa’s governments. He says they need to promote the broad development of energy efficiency, harness renewable energy sources, deal effectively with carbon capture and storage, and adopt suitable policies.
Even though the challenges seem impossible, some African countries are already taking serious steps towards building a smart and sustainable energy future. Many foreign and local energy companies are also flocking to Africa’s shores as they see Africa’s potential as a major powerhouse.
A smart grid for Africa will mean more than improved energy efficiency. It will provide cost-effective grid electricity to those who have been without and it will create much-needed jobs and skills. A more sustainable future will be created as a result-economically, environmentally and socially.