Another winter of discontent

At this time of year, as electricity demand surges and Eskom battles to keep up, the possibilities of smart metering provide light at the end of the tunnel.

Read time 4min 40sec

As we head into the depths of winter, the spectre of rolling blackouts again looms above us. National energy utility Eskom is reminding the nation - as it does every winter - that pressure on the national grid remains a challenge.

Various plans are in progress to increase South Africa's supply - from new coal-fired power stations, to the controversial induced hydraulic fracturing ('fracking') in the Karoo, to wind and solar-powered clean energy, and more.

But South Africa's spiralling demand for power is outpacing the speed at which new sources of generation can come on-stream.

"Generation is finite," says Gijima's head of Systems Integration, Derek Wiggill, "but it's around the distribution, transmission and consumption that we can get a lot smarter."

New ICTs can play a huge role at various stages in the electricity supply chain. For power utilities, various new innovations hold the promise of streamlining business processes, capitalising on data analytics, and increasing the efficiency of field workers.

Wiggill says the biggest opportunities for IT lie on the edge of the network - the low-voltage environment. In laymen terms: our homes, offices, factories. When the grid becomes pressurised, Wiggill says Eskom is currently forced to use a 'one size fits all approach', that of switching off an entire suburb or region.

Living on the edge

By embedding communications and monitoring into the electricity distribution infrastructure, he says a number of benefits emerge.

"Firstly, people get a clear view of their usage, and start to see how they could change their behaviour to make a cost saving. The utility could introduce incentive-based pricing - so if I agree to have my geyser remotely controlled by the utility, then I'd get discounted pricing, for example."

Aside from far better awareness and control of usage, this kind of smart grid technology would enable the utility to more easily pinpoint any faults along the powerlines, where power is starting to get 'dirty', or where a transformer is at risk of failure, for example. Maintenance teams can be automatically dispatched, and the process of fixing problems would become far more efficient.

But EOH's divisional director for its energy business, Jayesh Ranchod, says the critical factors include not just the deployment of more smart meters, but in how closely this new technology (and all the information it enables) is joined up with the utility's core operations at the centre. "Operational technology and information technology need to converge."

This is a fundamentally new way of seeing IT in the utilities space, he says, adding that previously, IT has operated as a silo, on the periphery of the utility, and not connected to operations.

He highlights the importance of enterprise architecture, IT governance and processes, and the right kinds of business intelligence and data analytics. Only by getting the entire IT estate aligned with operations will the utility be able to draw on insights from the edge of the network - to empower better decision-making at a strategic level.

Ranchod also refers to tailor-made packages and incentives to end-users as the most obvious immediate outcome of smart grid technology, as well as a more empowered field workforce and management team for the utility.

"Ultimately, this will lead to greater revenue protection, as energy supply is better secured," he says.

Harsh realities

So where is the hold-up occurring? If smart metering and smart grid technology exist, and promise such attractive benefits to both the utility and the end-user, why are we still continuing with 'dumb meters', sharply rising costs per unit, and the threat of rolling blackouts?

"Nobody wins during a power outage," says Gijima's Wiggill. Eskom isn't billing, the economy suffers, and our lives are disrupted.

Nobody wins during a power outage.

Derek Wiggill, Gijima

The crux of the problem, he believes, is that while Eskom is desperately trying to appeal to consumers, and while consumers want to do something different and better control their energy costs, the billing entities have little incentive to get people using electricity more smartly. The fragmented nature of South Africa's billing and distribution, where most of the country's billing is done by individual municipalities, means that co-ordinating every region and developing a national 'smart grid' system becomes extremely difficult to do.

EOH's Ranchod looks to the forthcoming possibilities of renewable energy at the consumer level as a crucial development in securing the supply of electricity to the nation.

When the regulatory environment formalises, the commercial and safety code aspects are clarified, and the technology becomes more accessible, then there will be opportunities for consumers to feed unused solar or wind-generated energy to the national grid, he says.

For now, it seems we're wrapped into a viscous cycle. As municipalities fail to see incentive to deploy smart meters, not enough exist in households. Without any valuable insights from consumers, Eskom continues with blanket pricing models. Inefficiencies reign supreme.

For now, the promise of smart grid technology remains tantalisingly available, and still out of reach.

First published in the July 2014 issue of ITWeb Brainstorm magazine.

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