Smart Grids. Smart Metering. If you are the kind of person who is regularly to be found around conferences where utilities and especially power supplies issues are discussed, you will be familiar with these words. In fact, you may even be one of those people who uses these terms quite frequently and relishes the easy way that the words roll off your tongue.
But ask the man in the street what a smart grid is, and he will most probably look at you blankly. So, although experts at the African Utility Week in Johannesburg in May will discuss the functionality of smart grids and how to optimally integrate it into the utilities network, most people have no clue what it is.
And yet smart grids are set to change the way power is measured and managed forever – with a resultant huge, and hopefully only positive, impact on the consumer.
Power supply challenges
The European Technology Platform for Electricity Networks for the Future (or Smart Grids ETP) defines a smart grid as: "an electricity network that can intelligently integrate the actions of all users connected to it – consumers, generators and those that do both – in order to efficiently deliver sustainable, economic and secure electricity supplies."
Masego Matseke, lead Consultant and Smart Metering specialist at Deloitte Consulting (South Africa) explains that a smart grid is made up of various components. It has functionality that characterises it as an "intelligent grid" enabling electricity utilities to become more responsive in managing their electricity grid. Deloitte will contribute to the Smart Grids/Transmission & Distribution conference track during African Utility Week.
"One of the fundamental elements of a smart grid includes a smart metering network which enables automated metering capabilities on the customer-side downstream the electricity supply value-chain; while upstream the utility obtains capabilities for real-time grid monitoring and information processing of significant network events. This includes fault detection, isolation and resolution."
Households will be able to monitor energy efficiency
A smart metering network further enables a utility's ability to remotely connect or disconnect power power to individual customers, remotely or automatically update the grid configuration, collect power consumption data in variable time intervals, and modulate customer loads automatically during critical demand periods. The smart grid is able to automatically detect theft and notifies the utility if a meter is tampered with. This is done through sensors within the network and this is why smart meter networks are often referred to as meter sensing networks.
"Householders will be able to monitor the efficiency of in-home appliances, a critical ability needed by South Africa today to manage our demand and supply constraint," says Matseke.
Addressing the challenge of power supply
Matseke gives a practical example of how smart metering can help to address the challenge of power supply: "ensuring security of power supply in South Africa has been an issue for a number of years. Although there are efforts underway to improve generation capacity, reserve margins remain under pressure. Smart metering functionality can help to address the problem. Once smart metering devices are installed, significant electricity savings can be achieved through, for instance, load management interventions by the utility. Tariffs can also be made more punitive for excessive consumption. Cases where the customer has the education and ability to optimise their load, the whole country benefits from efficient energy use. This can also aid the avoidance of blackouts and added costs of additional generation. "
Eskom, for instance, is evaluating suitable smart metering technologies through pilot programmes and a number of municipalities have switched to automated meter reading initiatives. This is part of municipalities beginning their journey to first establish smart metering capabilities and in future perhaps achieve a smart grid reality.
Some of the consumer benefits of smart metering include the elimination of property access issues, billing accuracy is improved because it will eliminate the need for estimated meter readings, customer service inquiries due to estimated or incorrect bills will be reduced, and there will be significant cost savings from demand response programmes.
According to Daniel Claassen, content manager of the Smart Grids/T&D track at African Utility Week, smart grid development is still in its infancy in Africa: "some of the challenges are finding the best technological and strategic solutions to suit Africa. There are a myriad of local and international vendors selling solutions. However, we have to find viable solutions and options for the African Smart Grid to excel."
He continues: "we also have a lack of skills and skills development on the continent. Unfortunately many people who gain invaluable skills and experience here go to greener pastures in more developed countries. We need to find better ways to develop and retain suitable skills."
African Utility Week will gather more than 5000 power and utility professionals to focus on all aspects of the utility service sector on the continent with dedicated tracks on: Metering, Renewables, Water, Large Industry, Infrastructure Investment, Transmission & Distribution/Smart Grids, Generation and Waste Management.
Conference: 22-23 May 2012, except the Smart Grids/T&D track which starts on 21 May already
Exhibition: 21-23 May 2012
Pre-conference workshops: 21 May 2012
Site visits: 24 May 2012
Event location: Nasrec Expo Centre, Johannesburg