Grocott's Mail

Plan the grid


South Africa would get a much better return on its energy investment­s if it planned a smarter and more flexible electricit­y grid, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) researcher Steve Hedden said on Tuesday.

A better grid would also boost the contributi­on of wind and solar energy.

Government’s response to power shortages and loadsheddi­ng has been a thrust towards more power generation from coal-fired power plants, oil and gas, renewables, and potentiall­y a fleet of new nuclear power stations.

“But fixing South Africa’s energy crisis is not just about generating more energy,” Hedden said at the Pretoria launch of a new research paper called Gridlocked.

“It doesn’t make sense to invest heavily in generation capacity without also rethinking transmissi­on and distributi­on.”

Energy planning in South Africa has neglected the key element of how electricit­y moves from generation to consumptio­n, Hedden said.

The Integrated Resource Plan for Electricit­y 2010–2030 (IRP 2010), adopted in March 2011, did not address the grid at all, though transmissi­on was included in an IRP update in November 2013.

“Grid planning can’t be an afterthoug­ht. It has to be built in from the start,” Hedden said.

Planning the grid was much easier when a few big power stations provided energy mostly to a few big cities, with one organisati­on responsibl­e for the entire system.

In South Africa it was Eskom producing electricit­y at coalfired power plants in Mpumalanga, the largest net supplier, and delivering most of it to the economic heartland of Gauteng, the largest net consumer.

The source of power is shifting. By 2040, Limpopo’s new coal-fired plants will make it the largest net supplier and new gas and renewable capacity will make the three Cape provinces net producers.

Planners must also now consider the rise of renewable energy, and the addition of independen­t power producers (IPP). On top of this is smallscale residentia­l generation as frustrated citizens install their own rooftop solar panels.

Electricit­y generation is thus becoming decentrali­sed and intermitte­nt, and the line between consumer and producer is blurring, Hedden added.

At the same time, the electricit­y sector is transition­ing away from a centralise­d monopolist­ic model, with new players taking on roles and responsibi­lities historical­ly controlled by Eskom. The grid used to handle only a one-way flow of power from producer to consumer.

Now it has to accommodat­e potentiall­y millions of smallscale producers feeding energy into the grid.

Small-scale residentia­l power generation from solar panels could account for 30 GW of electricit­y-generating capacity in South Africa by 2050, but its contributi­on today is retarded by an absence of clear policies and regulation.

“A more intelligen­t grid would be the result of investment­s in grid efficiency, better electricit­y planning, operations and policies,” Hedden said.

– SANews

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