Londiwe Buthelezi

Electricity producers and distributors need to invest in smart grids to deal with infrastructure maintenance backlogs because current practices do not guarantee business sustainability and economic growth.

This is what the SA National Energy Development Institute (Sanedi) told Parliament last week. The organisation, which was created for the sole purpose of assisting the Department of Energy in achieving its strategic objectives as set out in the country’s energy mix plan, said a lack of maintenance was posing significant risks to the industry.

It said that the the country’s infrastructure needed urgent rehabilitation and investment.

Willem de Beer of Sanedi told Parliament that unless an immediate and direct intervention was initiated, it would be very difficult for the industry to recover from its downward trajectory.

“It looks like we are the only nation that responds only when there is crisis,” he said.

A study done by EDI Holdings in 2008, a company set up by the government to address issues of energy distribution, showed a maintenance backlog in the country’s electricity grid was estimated at R27.4 billion. Sanedi said this backlog was growing at R2.5bn every year.

The closing down of EDI Holdings has left a huge gap in the electricity industry.

De Beer said if the electricity distribution industry was left to decide on its own what technology options to use, South Africa could end up with non-standardised solutions.

The organisation said between now and 2020, more than R250bn would need to be spent on the maintenance and expansion of South Africa’s electricity transmission and distribution infrastructure.

“But without a smart grid perspective, much of this money will be spent based on the 20th century technology.

“Under business-as-usual – without a smart grid perspective – that would be like expanding the nation’s telecommunications system without taking advantage of today’s digital and wireless technologies,” De Beer argued.

An example concerning the current grid was that if one used energy efficiency initiatives, there was no way to tell if it was done it correctly.

The current grid responded to prevent further damage. The focus was on protection of assets following system faults. A smarter grid would automatically detect and respond to actual and emerging transmission and distribution problems. Focus with this grid was on prevention.

The new grids were also resilient to attack and natural disasters, and they had rapid restoration capabilities.

But in South Africa, no single business owned or operated the grid. The smart grids were not emerging quickly because businesses did not have incentives to risk major change.

“The benefits are so broad and far reaching that perhaps only government can account for the cumulative societal value. Longer-term financial incentives are needed to enable the larger infrastructure investments needed for the smarter grid,” the organisation said.

Sanedi said that apart from the regulatory, legislative and communication barriers, industrial and technical barriers such as the need for more research and industry incentives, lagged the transition to a smart grid.