Digital disruption in Africa - how will it reshape energy supply?

Ahead of African Utility Week, Oracle’s Martin Dunlea gives his interpretation of digital disruption for energy suppliers on the continent.

Martin Dunlea, VP of Industry Strategy, EMEA, is an annual participant at African Utility Week in Cape Town and has seen the African energy industry respond to digitisation and what it means for electrification and customer engagement.

At this year’s event in May, Dunlea says he will be introducing the concept of how utilities need to evolve new business models to overcome the operational challenges of renewables on the grid.

"When we speak of a utility embarking on a digital transformation, we are referring to an organisation that is modernising its business environment by adopting digital capabilities and then transforming the business by spreading those capabilities across the business to create value," says Dunlea. 

Many digital transformations are happening at the very edge of the grid as technology continues to evolve, and as consumers adopt more distributed energy resources (DER) - at a pace far faster than anticipated.

These transformations are creating challenges for utilities in how they manage the introduction and control of these devices. New technologies such as smart meters, solar PVs, batteries and smart-grid based load management technologies will now be competing directly with the distribution utility’s provision of energy, and even capacity services.

That is particularly relevant to the African market, says Dunlea, because distributed energy resources are a great way to introduce community-based energy solutions.

More affordable micro-generation, energy storage, and energy demand management technologies have provided consumers and communities more control over their energy needs. Utilities have an immense business opportunity if they can support the growing adoption of the DERs.

By integrating DERs into the overall network model, utilities can leverage them as on-demand, low-cost solutions.

Digital disruption - welcome or not?

Clearly rooftop solar and other distributed energy resources (DER) are growing much faster than anticipated, and consumers are adding interconnected devices to the grid at a staggering rate, increasing the need for exceptional management of high-volume data.

The growth of DER generation outside the utility’s direct control is quickly becoming an issue. To control and optimise the edge of the grid requires utilities to have visibility and to be able to model all the way down to the consumer level.

For utilities, the question is how do they innovate to make this transformation into a customer-centric platform and energy service provider while still maintaining a reliable grid? Distributed energy resources are fast becoming a challenging proposition for the grid.

Renewable energy technologies can be particularly attractive in dispersed, ‘off-grid’ applications and as such, represent important options for rural areas that lack electricity transmission and distribution infrastructures.

Utilities can turn this challenge into an opportunity by supporting the growing adoption of the DER and integrating them into the overall network model. Once done, utilities can then leverage them as on-demand, low-cost tools for improving reliability and outage response.

Customer engagement in Africa

Dunlea says in order to resolve this dilemma, utilities must re-examine near-term and long-term plans for DER technology integration and whether their current enterprise systems are able to support the needed changes. Utilities need an integrated approach to address DER planning that includes future customer demands, grid operations, asset management, and workforce enablement.

As utilities move from supplying energy to providing differentiated services based on customer needs, they need a long-term technology plan. Utilities need to ensure that current technology investments and upgrades act as stepping stones to support the programs they want to offer and the expectations of future customers.

For many, the challenge is to find a balanced approach that allows the organisation to continue to perform while undertaking a digital transformation. Utilities must give staff time to drive digital transformation by gaining experience with new procedures and business processes while there is still a relatively small amount of new energy technologies on a system.

Oracle is working with utilities across the globe to predict, manage and avoid the reliability and cost risks associated with distributed energy resources (DER). We are providing utilities with true visibility to each resource within the distribution grid and its load profile so that reliability and outage management decision making is improved.

By accounting for each DER, utilities can proactively forecast how the growth of these resources will impact the grid and then adjust planning and generation accordingly.

Dunlea says the adoption of greener forms of energy will require utilities in Africa to consider how to integrate renewables into the grid.

To do so successfully, they will need to invest in smarter energy networks to mitigate the pressures placed on the grid by the introduction of new energy resources.  These “smarter” networks will enable utilities to make better use of their data, and this data obtained through smart meters and connected devices will help them gain a more complete view of how customers are using energy and when.

From a connected customers perspective, it is also about improving satisfaction and choice and ensuring support for the growth of customer-driven energy trends, such as the integration of rooftop solar, electric vehicles, and energy management systems.

Ultimately utilities need to increase customer choice to participate in demand response, load shifting, and the sales of excess and stored DER generation into other markets.

He adds: “By delivering on comprehensive technology and services, utilities can strengthen relationships with their customers and communities, drive digital transformation and support the transition to a more sustainable resource mix.”

Martin Dunlea will be speaking in a co-branded Engerati and Oracle live energy webinar on 25 April. Register now for ‘Digital Disruption at Africa’s grid edge - Oracle’s solutions’.

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