Alphabet’s X, Econet unit in deal to virtualise SA power grids

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Econet subsidiary Distributed Power Africa (DPA) South Africa is working with X (formerly known as Google X),Alphabet’s moonshot factory, to facilitate the just energy transition and enable reliable electricity access for the country.

This will be done through virtualisation of the national electrical transmission and distribution grids, and developing new grid tools to assist with planning, and to promote energy resilience and low carbon power in SA.

Just energy transition for South Africa is an initiative dedicated to support a clean energy transition in the country, the largest electricity market on the continent.

X is an American semi-secret research and development facility and organisation founded by Google in January 2010, which now operates as a subsidiary of Alphabet. Its headquarters are near Alphabet’s corporate headquarters, the Googleplex, in Mountain View, California.

DPA is a renewable energy company that supports businesses and communities across the continent, with resilient and cost-effective renewable energy solutions.

The company’s model involves developing, financing and ownership of renewable energy plants, to drive its mission of creating a better future, for all Africans.

Powerful tech solution

Earlier this year, X announced it is working on a moonshot for the electric grid. The team is developing new computational tools designed to give everyone who manages and operates energy the ability to plan, build and manage a clean and resilient grid.

Leveraging machine learning and artificial intelligence, the team is building tools to enable the real-time virtualisation of electric grids.

The team hopes to provide everyone who is involved in building, managing and using the grid – from grid operators, governments and utilities, to renewable energy and storage developers – with the insights they need to improve the planning and operation of the grid, with the goal of eliminating blackouts and ensuring reliable electricity.

The partnership comes as SA’s power utility Eskom, which provides over 90% of the country’s power, is struggling to keep the lights on, and has had to resort to crippling load-shedding bouts, much to the detriment of the economy.

X and DPA say they will focus on building a real-time model for the future of SA’s electricity system to improve the planning and operation of the grid, address blackouts, ensure reliable electricity, and facilitate an increased reliance on renewable energy sources.

They note the platform can also help to expedite assessments and placement of new clean energy sources, allowing for quick development of new power plants and a faster response to SA’s electricity crisis.

Norman Moyo, CEO of Distributed Power Africa.
Norman Moyo, CEO of Distributed Power Africa.

SA has been making steady progress in bringing renewable energy sources onto the national grid.

However, despite an increased contribution from renewables, SA’s energy sector still has the highest carbon-intensity of any G20 nation due to its heavy reliance on coal.

This is according to the latest assessment by Climate Transparency International, which notes that in 2020, three-quarters (74%) of SA’s total primary energy supply was derived from burning coal – more than double the G20 average of 31%.

Says Norman Moyo, CEO of DPA: “Our work with X will provide the missing piece in the energy ecosystem in Africa. X’s moonshot for the electric grid team is enabling a virtual matching platform for generators and consumers of electrons. Africa’s biggest crisis today is energy security. There is a strong correlation between energy security and GDP growth. Distributed energy is a key catalyst to leapfrog the continent’s legacy energy structural deficiencies.”

“We’re delighted to be working with Distributed Power Africa to support their efforts to transition South Africa to a more reliable, sustainable and equitable grid,” says Audrey Zibelman, vice-president of X’s moonshot for the electric grid.

“People everywhere deserve access to clean and reliable power and X’s moonshot for the electric grid team is committed to accelerating an equitable energy transition. As our first partner in Africa, we’re looking forward to learning from DPA and their innovative approach, as it will deepen our understanding of the problems that need to be solved in order to transform electrical grids so they better serve the people who rely on them every day.”

Life after coal

Non-profit organisation Res4Africa notes that despite the successful initiation of a renewable energy transition, today SA’s power sector is experiencing some difficulties.

It notes the country’s economy, already severely stressed by the economic crisis, is highly dependent on the extraction and export of coal.

SA’s Integrated Resource Plan 2019 foresees the decommissioning of 11GW of coal and the addition of 6.8GW of solar and 15.7GW of wind generation capacity.

“In a country where coal is such a significant part of the economy, it is especially important to plan for and manage the impacts of the transition to renewables, dedicating sufficient attention to employment and reskilling,” the organisation says.

In his weekly newsletter, president Cyril Ramaphosa recently said as a country, SA is developing detailed plans to enable a just transition.

“Our electricity sector, which contributes 41% of South Africa’s greenhouse gas emissions, will be the first phase of the transition. It will be the quickest industry to decarbonise and will have a beneficial impact across the economy.”

The president noted that as part of the process, SA will be decommissioning and repurposing coal-fired power stations, and investing in new low-carbon-generation capacity, such as renewables.

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