Mechanical Technology Archive

Peter Middleton Comment Mechanical TechnologyAt the closing panel discussion for POWER-GEN and DistribuTECH Africa, entitled ‘Visions for Africa’s Power Future’, it was suggested that Africa’s rich gas, solar, wind, hydro and geothermal resources be harnessed and added to the energy mix in a sustainable way, and that greater private sector participation in the sector had to be encouraged.

Moderator Gareth Gregory, Africa head of Energy Security Services Africa, compared Africa’s power sector to India’s IT sector 30 years ago: “We have the potential to turn the situation around in the same way that India sparked its booming IT industry”.

Dawie Roodt, chief economist at The Efficient Group, said that power generation, distribution and pricing models should be handed to more private sector players to make vital electricity sup- plies more competitive. It was not necessary for governments to deliver services such as power or mobile telecommunications, he argued. “In a digital economy, centralisation is becoming outdated,” he said, adding, “Governments should focus on regulating the power sector effectively and creating an enabling environment for private investment”.

South Africa’s independent power producer (IPP) programme had proven the viability of the hybrid model, said Aurecon technical director, Clinton Carter-Brown. “We now need to further capacitate mid-tier and small players to roll out IPP lessons at a granular level, within the best interests of the economy and the power system.”

Richard Candy of EON Consulting South Africa argued that aggregators were needed to support small-scale distributed power generation players who could buy and sell power back into the grid. However, this required effective smart grids with high visibility: “You must be able to monitor what is going down the line so that you can enable individual customers to participate and support on- demand models for power consumption.”

While Honeywell’s Amos Hadebe, highlighted that regional integration would present opportunities to aggregate the market and attract investors. “But to achieve this, we need regional interoperability and harmonised standards,” he said.

Conceding that full privatisation of national power utilities was unlikely in the foreseeable future, delegates participating in the discussion said hybrid systems, in which independent power producers and utilities both contributed to power generation and distribution, were likely to emerge as a solution to Africa’s power shortfall in the short to medium term.

Contrasting this high level view in MechTech this month, Kenny Gaynor, Cummins’ director of power generation for Southern Africa, reveals some of the practical solutions being implemented to overcome Africa’s Power deficit: fuel-based solutions that are seldom ‘championed’ by industry experts.

Gensets are often a grudge purchase to mitigate outage and load shedding risks. In many situations, however, for safety-critical applications such as underground mining and hospitals, they have always been required and, in remote areas where access to the grid is unavailable, “there are fewer options other than prime units”.

Gaynor points to some “amazing” features of diesel generation: “When it comes to absorbing changes in load, either up or down,” he argues, “there is nothing better.” He also cites the relatively low capex and maintenance costs of modern units.

“But,” he concedes, “the big issue is running costs due to fuel.” This makes prime diesel generators ideal for use in hybrid solutions. “Solar technology is now quite sophisticated. Management systems can predict when the solar output is about to drop due to cloud cover, for example, and the diesels can be started in time to prevent power dipping. The diesels ramp up in sync with the solar coming off and the load doesn’t see any change in the supply,” Gaynor explains. Hybrid diesel-solar systems “could see some 20% savings on diesel fuel costs, which has a huge impact on the levelised kWh cost,” he estimates.

In addition, according to Gaynor, sophisticated natural gas and biogas engines are “an increasingly viable alternative to diesel gensets”, particularly for combined heat and power applications. “Most hospitals are already using gas for their boilers. We like to redirect that gas into an engine to produce both heat and power. In so doing, we can often take the hospital off-grid without having to use substantially more fuel,” Gaynor says.

The direct efficiency of a modern gas engine-driven generator is around 40 to 42% “but a further 45% can be added to that by beneficiating the heat, allowing these systems to achieve overall efficiencies of more than 80%.

In terms of smart technology and connectivity, these generators and hybrid systems are already being installed with built-in ‘Connected Enterprise’ capabilities. Connecting to a grid is no more difficult than interconnecting the compressors across a mining operation.

As Gregory suggests, we have the potential to create a booming energy sector – and while regulation and policy support would be ideal, political decision makers are fast becoming the followers rather than the leaders.

Peter Middleton

Download the pdf here.

Link to 2016_Peter's_comment_overcoming_Africa's_power_challenges.pdf


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