The challenges and opportunities of Power Africa

East Coast residents experienced numerous power outages this winter due to extreme weather. Just ask Boston residents, who spent their winter either waiting hours for public transit or digging out their cars from a record-breaking amount of snow. While this can be devastating for some lower income areas, for most people it is just a temporary inconvenience.

However, just across the ocean, 1.3 billion people are constantly experiencing power outages or living without power. It is simply part of their existence. President Barack Obama has been working on the Power Africa initiative as a way to improve the issue in Africa while the World Bank is also making its efforts known with Lighting Africa.

Acknowledging and putting funds toward the issue is a great start, and while recognizing these financial activities, it is worthwhile to ask ourselves which technology solutions and overall approaches can have the most impact.

Challenges of the modern electric utility

One of the primary proposals coming out of Power Africa is to modernize the power grid throughout the continent, and reasonably so. The modern grid and associated tools like smart meters have given customers more control over their energy usage and costs.

For the utility, it gives them insight on how well their equipment is operating, how to use the equipment most efficiently, how to react to equipment failures or natural catastrophes, or other similar objectives. However, the downside of operating a modern utility is effectively managing the avalanche of new data that comes with them.

New systems have a tremendous amount of information that can provide immense value to utilities, but unfortunately, the tools available to work with this data are often rudimentary and make it difficult to take advantage of the potential value “locked up” in this data.

Furthermore, the information between all the systems within the utility are siloed, making it difficult to combine data and recognize more complex relationships. Thus, it is challenging to achieve an overall understanding of a utility’s complete operations.

One problem is that moving data from one system to another, using conventional methods, is difficult and expensive to implement. This is an issue for North American utilities, and would simply be unattainable in Africa. There is also a formatting complexity associated with combining data from different systems, which adds costs as well.

A universal solution: the cloud

As utilities in Africa begin to add sophisticated components that require more data, they should consider options for leveraging the cloud. It’s more affordable than ever, and the cloud can operate as a general-purpose data analysis tool, capable of collecting and interacting with a wide variety of data sets. It would provide a framework for the exploring, analyzing, and understanding of relationships using multiple data sets, from different sources. Ultimately, combinations of data across system boundaries provide greater insights and greater understanding, which is needed to deliver the highest quality of service to the region’s residents.

This type of tool is possible today, even for African utilities, due to recent developments in the cloud delivery of sophisticated SaaS platforms. Using Hadoop technology, a free, Java-based programming framework that supports the processing of large data sets in a distributed computing environment, data analysis tasks can be spread over many separate processors, as needed, to deliver a tool that is quick and easy to use, no matter how large the data sets, or how complex the analysis. Cloud data storage can be scaled to suit the volume of data and the expected lifetime of the data, making it ideal for African utilities.

Users of analytic tools throughout the utility can simultaneously access shared datasets and analytic methods, either in open-ended analytic exploration or as production analysis methods. The cloud also enables advanced data visualization to be delivered, supporting a deeper understanding of the data relationships from system to system within an electric utility.

Lastly, a key factor in delivering maximum value from an analytic tool is the ease of use. Modern software designs can provide a clean, easy-to-understand presentation of complex data sets and relationships. For a region without a surplus of highly trained energy professionals, this will be critical. Analytic tools can be most valuable when they are made available to the specific people that will take action based on the results.

Benefits of using modern data analytics tools

In the African utility environment, it is important to work “smart,” focusing staff time and expertise on the areas that will benefit the utility the most. Data analytics can help with this in several ways, the most critical of which are:

“-          First, modern data analytics provide specific tools to determine the most efficient operation of distribution equipment. For example, a utility can optimize voltage settings to maintain specified voltages at customer meters while minimizing delivery system losses and power acquisition costs. This will be a huge contributor to reducing the outages that plague most of sub-Saharan Africa today. Another example is being able to correlate blink counts at meters to identify fault locations or analyze outage reports to locate tripped circuits. This will reduce safety risks and time spent on manually searching for outages.

“-          Second, analytics methods can also be used to monitor electric system operations to alert operators when performance trends indicate failing components or pre-emptively required maintenance. These can reduce system failures, emergency repair costs and potential cascading failures.

Data analytics: the key for bringing African utilities into the modern era

The next ten years will be an exciting, yet challenging time for African utilities. The technology available today has the potential to propel them into an entirely new energy situation, and the global community should all take part in this effort. However, these innovations need to be approached correctly, so that utilities are using data in a way that will benefit them and the communities they serve.

The availability of modern data analytics tools will usher in a new era in use the many sources of data that a modern utility enjoys, as well as preparing African utilities to fully embrace the data capabilities of future smart grid developments, along with the rest of the world.


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