South Africa and Africa face considerable transmission and infrastructure challenges, which are hindering energy security and, consequently, economic growth; however, there are interventions under way to tackle this, and the region must draw on its considerable talent pool of engineers to facilitate this.
This was noted by Electricity Minister Dr Kgosientsho Ramokgopa, delivering the keynote address on the second day of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) ninth Engineering Week and seventh Africa Engineering Conference, being held this week at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, in Pretoria.
Ramokgopa pointed out that there had been a 325% increase in the transmission infrastructure required for the next decade in South Africa, and that, despite the challenges this entailled, this also represented an opportunity for the country and region’s engineers.
“In every crisis, there is an opportunity. [In these transmission challenges,] there is an opportunity to industrialise. We must use the engineering capacity here and in neighbouring countries to help resolve this,” he emphasised.
He posited that the engineers in the country and the broader region had the requisite capacity to fix these transmission issues.
Ramokgopa highlighted that the trends driving change in the transmission sector included that growth in distributed, converter-based energy resources was reducing system strength and inertia on the grid.
Moreover, transitional high-emitting generation assets, nearly all of which are fossil fuel-based, are being retired.
Also, ageing infrastructure is struggling to keep on par with more varied and distributed generation and demand.
Lastly, major sectors of the economy were shifting to electric power, driving considerable load growth within the power system, Ramokgopa said.
In terms of challenges, he highlighted intermittency and congestion, explaining that bottlenecks could occur across power networks, in some cases causing solar and wind projects to be curtailed as their output could not reach load centres.
There was also weakening system stability – as conventional plants were replaced by inverter-interfaced sources such as solar, wind and high-voltage direct current links that did not add inertia to the system. Ramokgopa emphasised that transmission operators faced the reality that there may not be a sufficient amount of free inertia available when required.
Another challenge is reducing visibility of grid assets, with the proliferation of distributed energy resources being connected to the distribution system and behind customer meters, which is obscuring transmission operators’ views of the generation activities on their grid and their ability to balance supply demand and system frequency, Ramokgopa outlined.
He also mentioned a challenge of increasing the use of existing assets, deploying new technology and engaging in new commercial models amid rising electricity demand and aging infrastructure.
Lastly, Ramokgopa said transmission operators would have to deal with the challenge of harnessing new transmission technology and integrating new hardware onto the grid. He pointed out that their operating policies were often not designed to also recognise consumers as producers.
Ramokgopa noted that sub-Saharan Africa was facing systematic challenges that were linked to infrastructure deficits, namely, increasing energy demand, an unreliable energy supply, difficulties around access and affordability of energy, the impact of instability, a mismatch between oil and gas production and demand, and a lack of proper exploitation of abundant natural resources.
However, he pointed out that considerable demand growth and constrained capacity represented an investment opportunity.
He emphasised the importance of energy infrastructure in driving economic growth, and called for engineers to develop infrastructure solutions in this vein.
Ramokgopa expanded that sufficiently developed transmission infrastructure development ensured reliability and secure energy supply; and ensured efficient transmission of electricity from power generation sources to demand centres, reducing the risk of outages and disruptions.
He added that stability of supply was crucial for businesses to operate smoothly, attract investment and foster economic growth.
Further, he said that transmission infrastructure was also crucial for the integration of renewable energy resources to the grid, especially when these were located far away from demand centres.
He mentioned that renewables would constitute a large share of future electricity generation sources in the region by 2040, while the share of coal was still estimated to increase.
Ramokgopa also pointed out that electricity access is determined primarily by infrastructure, including proximity to the grid, as well as the affordability of the grid connections.
He cited that there was evidence from sub-Saharan Africa that showed the link between high connection charges and low access.
Ramokgopa mentioned that demand for energy services on the continent was set to grow rapidly, therefore, maintaining affordability remained imperative. He said that while slight improvements had been made in access to electricity, population growth was set to alter this trajectory.
Ramokgopa said that even as oil and gas prices surged with the Russia/Ukraine war, chronic underinvestment in infrastructure was preventing African producers from ramping up production to meet global demand.
He pointed out that access to natural resources and renewable energy resources were being squandered owing to a lack of proper infrastructure.
Ramokgopa called for domestication of value add. He also highlighted the opportunity to support and increase regional power trains in Southern Africa. Ramokgopa said the Southern African Development Community region offered considerable avenues for growth and cleaner sources of power.
In terms of measures currently being pursued, Ramokgopa outlined six energy infrastructure intervention that underpinned the African Union’s Agenda 2063.
Firstly, there was energy access, which entailed expanding electricity infrastructure to reach underserved populations, especially in rural areas.
Secondly, there was renewable energy, which promoted developing and bolstering clean and sustainable energy technologies to reduce the continent’s reliance on fossil fuels and to mitigate climate change.
Thirdly, there was energy efficiency, which was underpinned by reducing energy waste and promoting energy efficient technologies.
Fourthly, there was energy investment, constituting a focus on attracting domestic and foreign investment in the energy sector, including in energy infrastructure, research and development, and capacity building.
Fifthly, there was regional integration, which encouraged regional cooperation in developing and sharing energy resources, and could include cross-border energy trade and developing regional power pools.
Lastly, there was inclusivity, with the agenda promoting inclusive and equitable energy access, and seeking to ensure that this was distributed fairly.