How do smart grids work?
A smart grid provides full visibility into all elements of an electricity distribution network – including detailed information on both supply into the grid and consumption from it. This visibility is enabled by recent developments in low-cost sensor systems and pervasive wireless communication networks that can carry this data back to a distributed set of intelligent controllers. Decisions can then be taken by controllers located at key points in the system, based on actual environmental and transmission metrics, rather than on gut feel, guesswork and approximations from models.
Commercially, can businesses benefit from buying into smart-grid technology?
First and foremost, businesses need reliable power. Low-cost power is desirable, but reliable power is essential. If businesses start taking ownership of their power consumption – accurately measuring where they use the most, managing power factors and even returning power to the grid through their own generation capability – they can start helping utilities to manage demand and, therefore, tailor supply and distribution more cost effectively
How can smart grids make energy more accessible in Africa?
The primary desired outcome of a smart-grid implementation is that electric power is more reliable and cost effective to deliver. More reliable power increases customer reliance and consumption through confidence in the utility. A distribution network with finer control, including improved demand management, means less excessive loading on equipment. This drives the virtuous circle of reliability and leads to more consumption and, therefore, better economies of scale.
Could smart-grid technology be a solution to Sa’s energy crisis?
No. Smart grids can help mitigate some aspects of the energy crisis, but they are an optimisation mechanism. That said, even without the collapse of South Africa’s generation capacity and distribution-network reliability, it still makes sense to use a smart grid to drive efficiency and reliability.
What are the challenges surrounding the roll-out of smart grids in SA?
The biggest challenge is old infrastructure, where retrofitting smart-grid technology could be difficult as there is limited ability to gather environmental and utilisation data and for automated systems to remotely control actuation at sites.
The second challenge is the catch-22 in optimising business processes and technology: To save money, money needs to be spent and – at the moment – money is extremely tight in business. Right now, there is just about enough budget to keep the lights going.
Luckily, there are some great new Internet of Things (IoT) technologies that could reduce the cost of building smart grids. Two worth noting are Wi-SUN (Smart Utility Network), a meshed low-bit-rate communication technology that can be used as a bearer network for multiple smart-city applications; and Sigfox, which has proven itself as a cost-effective way to do smart metering and systems monitoring.
Network-communication costs are rapidly falling, along with the cost of smart devices. So there are some silver linings in local options for smart-grid implementation.
Why is cloud computing so crucial in the innovation space?
“Cloud computing” is a broad term. At Internet Solutions, it is defined as data hosting and processing. This is done in a large-scale shared and virtualised infrastructure that is highly redundant and can be reached quickly from an internet-connected end point.
This essentially defines cloud computing’s value to business: The use of powerful computing resources from a vast pool at a fraction of the cost of building them yourself. These resources can be basic storage, virtual servers, or specialised, advanced services a business pays for hourly, depending on use. This means that trialling a new technology is extremely cost effective and – if a business is happy with the prototype – it can be instantly scaled to service millions of users. This makes innovation easier, more cost effective and more agile.
What are your thoughts on the Internet of Lights?
Internet of Lights (an interconnected system of smart lights) technology is likely to settle into a small niche of applications. While it is an interesting technology, it does not do a lot more than current radio-network technology and it has some severe drawbacks: It suffers from self-interference and interference from extraneous noise sources. It also requires a strictly unobstructed line of sight and there is a substantial cost to retrofit it to existing lighting systems.