Eskom CIO talks tech to curb carbon emissions

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 05 Jun 2023
Eskom CIO Faith Burn.
Eskom CIO Faith Burn.

Eskom is on a journey to regenerate its tech systems, to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, as the power utility races to meet the objectives of the Just Energy Transition (JET) programme.

This was the word from Eskom CIO Faith Burn, speaking at the Huawei Sub-Saharan Africa Electric Power Summit, which formed part of Enlit Africa 2023, which recently took place in Cape Town.

Discussing the important role of technology in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and building resilience for an organisation’s digital footprint, Burn urged corporates not to overlook the importance of digitalisation as a key enabler of the decarbonisation transition.

In 2020, Eskom established its JET office when it set long-term ambitions to achieve net zero carbon emissions in SA by 2050, without negatively impacting society, jobs or livelihoods.

According to Burn, the power utility has made great strides in its evolution towards this transition, with technology being a crucial factor.

As part of its strategy to accomplish this target, Eskom has deployed a dual strategy – focused on firstly, reducing enterprise technology emissions, and secondly, the use of modern technologies to lower emissions, explained Burn.

“Our JET programme deals with how we want to reduce our carbon footprint. From a CIO perspective, what’s really important in this journey is to have what McKinsey & Company calls an ‘offensive and defensive’ strategy.

“What that means is that on the defensive is the actions IT teams can take to reduce emissions, and we know that enterprise technology accounts for about 1% of greenhouse emissions.

“The offensive is how we are enabling the business to cut emissions through the use of technology. On the defensive, what we’ve been doing at Eskom is really looking at how we reduce our footprint. And one of the main ways of doing it was by getting approval with our statutory agencies to embrace cloud technology, because without cloud you can’t have digitalisation.”

Cloud is touted by experts as a game-changer in reducing greenhouse gas emissions through reduced IT traffic congestion, lowering energy use in the workplace, increasing productivity, reducing energy consumption and saving energy.

As part of this journey, Eskom deployed the services of Huawei to “freshen up” its infrastructure, and as a result, has seen some savings in terms of IT cost, power usage, storage and infrastructure, she noted.

“The offensive approach is about how companies are structuring their data centres and what they are doing about their technology endpoints, etc. Previously, we had a large percentage of our infrastructure on-premises, and so that refreshing process has really helped us with embracing the cloud journey.

“In 2016, South Africa signed the Paris Agreement to reduce carbon emissions at CoP21 and that’s about seven years ago.

“When you look at how cloud technologies are being rapidly adopted, it’s amazing,” she added.

According to Eskom, under the Paris Agreement, SA pledged that the country’s greenhouse gas emissions would peak by 2025, then plateau for another 10 years and then decline from 2036.

To achieve this target, the country will need to invest in lower or zero-emitting technologies, it says.

Historically, electricity accounts for approximately 42% of national greenhouse gas emissions. In 2021, data analysis by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air revealed the state-owned energy utility was among the world's largest single emitter of sulphur dioxide, surpassing the entire power sector emissions of any country in the world, except for India.

In line with JET, Eskom’s planned emission reduction plan includes investing in technology retrofits to reduce emissions, the progressive closure of older stations and the move to a cleaner energy mix.

Burn also touched on the role of micro grids − which are used by Eskom as an alternative to the main grid – as a solution to supply renewable energy where there are constrained networks, particularly in rural and remote areas, to improve reliability.

They also offer the opportunity to deploy more zero-emission electricity sources, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions, noted Burn.

“We’ve been talking about micro grids and digitalisation for a very long time. Isn’t it about time that we matched the talking with action? And it’s about time that we all use digitalisation to reduce our footprint.”