What are the barriers to implementing the smart grid in SA?

A smart grid facilitates the efficient, intelligent use of available energy and can achieve significant energy savings.  This is of course of tremendous benefit to South Africa which is experiencing a dire energy crisis.  There are however certain barriers to implementing a smart grid in the country.

“A smart grid can be defined as an evolved grid system which has been expanded through the addition of intelligence that manages electricity demand in a sustainable, reliable and economic manner,” explains Jaco Cronje, Operations Director for EES Africa (Pty) Ltd.  “The smart grid allows the integration of all types of power generation, including renewables.  Smart grids are an integral part of smart cities.”

EES is an ISO 9001:2008 certified company providing management, engineering and auditing services to a range of industries throughout Africa.  It specialises in the integration of multiple system infrastructure including ICT, data centres, audio visual, life safety, security and building automation systems.   

The grid was originally designed for the supply of low-cost abundant energy sourced far away from where it was required by consumers.  Renewable energy eg. solar and wind, then started to contribute to the grid.  This however did not make the grid a smart grid but a grid with some green energy suppliers.  

“Today a smart meter is used to provide information and enable customer control and knowledge of energy usage.  This type of data allows the energy consumer to know the amount of electricity being used, when it is used and by which appliance.  The smart grid brings about a whole new industry of technology, intelligence and efficiencies previously unknown,” says Cronje. 
This year Johannesburg CityPower announced the roll-out of 55 000 smart meters.  It should be noted that the smart meter is only one constituent, albeit a vital constituent, of the smart grid.

Barriers to implementing a smart grid

“In discussing the barriers to implementing a smart grid it is important to note that we are not building a smart grid or smart city from the ground up in South Africa,” Cronje states.  “We have inherited cities and a grid that we need to morph into the most sustainable solution.”

The major barriers are:
  • Public perception needs to be managed.  Contrary to what a large percentage of the public appear to believe, smart meters and smart grids do not lead to increased energy costs.  It has been unfortunate that the roll out of this key component has coincided with electricity increases.
  • Financing can present challenges.  It should be remembered though that this presents opportunities for venture capitalists to embrace the developing smart grid and capitalise on opportunities that did not exist before.
  • Policies, regulations and the roadmap of the smart grid need to be clearly communicated.  Some cities in South Africa have found this to be a challenge and therefore embarked on a process of rolling out with little communications. Other cities have really embraced the opportunity and are leading by example.
  • Data privacy and cybersecurity need to be taken into account.  Information obtained by the smart meter provides any marketer with valuable insight into consumers, without the consumers explicitly allowing such information to be made available.  A further risk is that such data would need to be secured through various levels of barriers from hackers and fraudulent activities.
  • Regulations and frameworks can stifle the market, and this can be prohibitive as it may stifle ingenuity which is needed for the smart grid to grow in its early stages.  Once the early stages have been implemented it is then appropriate for the different vendors and mechanisms to interoperate.
  • In designing and implementing smart grids, energy industry players need to ensure both products and installation techniques are of adequate quality to ensure the solution outlasts the deployment period.
  • Connectivity requirements must be met so that data can be obtained and made available for use.  Connectivity can be achieved through various technical mechanisms.  
  • Skills shortages can be a problem as the creation of the smart grid and smart cities is a reasonably new initiative.  

Key solutions

What then are the solutions needed to competently prepare for what the future holds?  

Complete stakeholder buy-in is essential for the successful roll-out of smart grids in Sough Africa.  Integral to this is connectivity and communication between all industry players.  

The industry players are:

  • Government;
  • Utilities, which are Eskom and Independent Power Producers (IPPs);
  • Vendors, which are Eskom and municipalities;
  • Consumers or the end users.

Regulations need to be put into practice to encourage this behaviour ie. ingenuity in the early phases followed by ongoing implementation in accordance with specific processes and protocol.

Cronje also advises that roll-out plans should consider a staggered approach.  “Residential, small business and industrial implementation should be segmented, starting in the residential market, and then moving into business and finally industry.  This allows large amounts of data to be processed without influencing the industrial energy consumers.”

Financial solutions are of course critical.  The National Empowerment Fund is leading this space through its support for venture capitalists.  

A ‘Pull vs Push’ paradigm should be adhered to.  All stakeholders should be ‘pulled’ to smart grids and smart cities, as opposed to punitive legislation being used.  Offer the carrot not the stick.

“Finally, smart data management is non-negotiable,” Cronje emphasises.  “It is this intelligence that facilitates the real benefit of the smart grid.  Smart data management informs industry players what the viable procedures and trends are that should be followed, resulting in optimum efficiency in energy management.

EES company profile:

Established in 2001, EES Africa (Pty) Ltd specialises in the integration of multiple system infrastructure including ICT, Data Centres, Audio Visual, Life Safety, Security and Building Automation Systems. As an ISO 9001:2008 certified company, our vision is to be Africa’s management, engineering and auditing professional service provider of choice. The EES Value Proposition focuses on translating technology into tangible deliverables for clients through the experience of a talented team of Engineering and ICT Consultants and Project Managers. With offices in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Stellenbosch, EES operates predominantly in the Renewable Energy, Oil & Gas, Financial Services, Infrastructure, Utilities, Telecoms and Mining sectors.


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