Electricity + Control

By Nalen Alwar, Altaaqa Global Caterpillar Rental Power

Temporary power – as a free agent – is assistive in terms of a fast-tracked decentralised source of power.

Complex Adaptive SystemsCentral utilities are driven by their indigenous resources to produce and supply power at the least cost of generation.

These least cost generation curves are regionally understood as gas in West Africa, hydropower in Central Africa, and coal and hydropower in Southern Africa.
Whilst this makes sense, it could result in perceived monopolistic behaviour and restricted access to private sector participation when power supply problems occur, either through project delays or disruptions in generation and distribution systems.

This article argues the case for temporary power as a free agent that is assistive in terms of a fast-tracked decentralised source of power. Free agents can enter a system and either help it thrive through mutual adaption or fail if the adaptation is not achieved.

Several papers have been written on viewing power generation from heterogeneous fuel feedstock sources and decentralised utilities as complex adaptive systems.
It is argued that retaining this theoretical lens to view power generation as a complex adaptive system aids the design and implementation of solutions.

Specific characteristics of complex adaptive systems and the fit of free agents in the form of temporary or rental power solutions are emphasised to describe system performance potential. The system referred to shall always mean the power supply grid and its interconnected or unconnected industrial or end-user entities.

Free agents

One of the most topical subjects is the provision and cost of power supply for the sub-Sahara Africa region. Whilst new power stations are being built, there are problems of delayed project delivery. By definition, a free agent is an external entity introduced into a system, and there may be positive or negative causal effects due to its interaction with the system and other agents or entities within the system. Agents within a system adapt to their environment and it is the ability of agents, entities and the environment to mutually interact, adapt and co-evolve that brings about system performance.

Free agents can enter a system and assist in improving system performance through contribution at a local or decentralised level or at a centralised level. The national grid and its decentralised parts (stepped down voltage distribution networks) create system connectivity – a typical feature of complex adaptive systems.

Complex Adaptive Systems

Complex Adaptive Systems are systems that are constantly adapting to internal interactions and their external environment based on relationships, emergence, patterns and iterations.

Studies done from a complex adaptive systems perspective are enriched due the ability to incorporate increasing realism and empirical data into modelled problems that can be understood in a practical business setting. More specifically, a complex adaptive system has the following four common properties:

First, it is a network that comprises of organisational elements or entities that are interconnected and exhibit adaptivity in response to changes in the external environment or the entities themselves.

An electricity supply network with nodes or agents representative of electricity production capacities easily portrays this. Where mainstream power plants are the typical agents to be found in such a supply network, a free agent can be introduced in the form of a temporary power plant or a different technology. The system then has a new interaction. The interactivity is possible because of synchronous technology of the temporary power plant that contributes a high level of operational stability. This makes sense in that sub-Saharan Africa’s energy mix would comprise renewable power generation sources that pose challenges to system reliability and performance, given their inherent intermittent contribution and associated disturbances to the grid or system.

Second, Complex Adaptive Systems are self-organising and provide the best fit with the environment through feedback mechanisms. Temporary power plants have control mechanisms that provide flexibility in their supply scheme in that they can be loaded, unloaded, follow demand profiles and their maintenance scheduled in order to optimise availability and operation with transmission system operators.

Third, Complex Adaptive Systems co-evolve to the edge of chaos to take advantages where maximum creativity, diversity and variety exist. Thus when their environments change, the entities co-evolve and change the environment.

This is a continuous process of co-evolution. Sub-Saharan Africa is beleaguered with power shortages, but the availability of various fuel types offers fuel diversity and, combined with rental power technologies for operational schemes, can change the power supply landscape providing advantages to the national utility or to end-users who invest in distributed generation. The national utility can take advantage of the surplus increase and availability of outputs and end-users can benefit from load management incentives, electricity price hedging, profitable power sales, critical process protection and energy efficiency. This leads to positive outcomes for both entities in the respective industry in which they operate, as nested systems.

Fourth, Complex Adaptive Systems are nested systems and together with their environment, form a subset of another Complex Adaptive System. Similarly, the power supply network of each country is a subset of the regional power pool that further influences other environments, namely industry and economy, cross-border power trade and economic activity. The interconnectedness of nested systems results in adaptation and resilience.

Local efficiency of the system is sometimes compromised at a local level as rental power solutions come with tariff premiums. However, it should be understood that Complex Adaptive Systems can sometimes reduce efficiency at a local level for greater system effectiveness as increasing electrification is fundamental to increasing a nation’s gross domestic output.


Parastatals need to recognise the potential contribution of free-agents represented by fast-track technology and solutions for provision of power that would aid system performance. In regions where system disturbances are highly visible in the form of restricted power supply and investment constraints due to capital shortages, the Complex Adaptive System perspective provides good sense for allowing adaptation through rapid response in terms of delivering temporary or rental power solutions. Given the current limited level of decentralisation, it is important that overarching policy is written so that system performance is not hindered. The complex adaptive system theory could thus provide effective blueprints to develop appropriate frameworks for public sector organisations to formulate policies that encourage an increase in private sector participation with well – oriented support mechanisms for independent power producers.

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