By Matthew Bell, Aggreko
Power is rarely measured by one set of criteria alone. As things stand, however, there are no consistent markers for what an acceptable and universal “power quality mix” might look like. Considering the variety of challenges and environments across the world, the industry can take more informed steps to address challenges and the inequalities a lack of quality power can create. Defining and achieving an acceptable power quality mix is vital.
The technical definition of power quality-the interaction of electrical power with electrical equipment-does little to explain its impact on end users. A farmer in Africa could be concerned with gaining reliable and affordable access, while a factory owner in China might demand sufficient voltage, and an architect in Germany could be interested in environmentally friendly energy. These disparities in needs and attitudes toward electricity make understanding the various contributing factors to the power mix, and the challenges we face in achieving them, all the more important.
Access and Affordability
Access to electricity, or the lack thereof, can have a huge impact on end users and national economies. There often is emphasis within the industry on keeping the lights on, but in many regions the focus is still on “putting” the lights on.
Approximately 600 million Africans are living without access to electricity, according Power Africa: Annual Report 2014. This inequality creates a range of socio-economic issues, including access to healthcare and education. High costs and a lack of investment play a key role in this inequality. The International Energy Agency has estimated Sub-Saharan Africa will need more than $300 billion of capital investment to extend electricity access to everyone by 2030. This accounts for 64 percent of the total funding required to achieve this goal globally.
A lack of adequate infrastructure, which again is impacted by limited investment, also has detrimental consequences for national utilities’ ability to provide their customers with access to electricity, particularly across vast regions and challenging environments.
This isn’t a challenge just for utilities in developing nations, however. Countries with vast rural landscapes, such as Australia and some states in the U.S., face the task of reaching populations at the end of a transmission line often hundreds of miles long. As these towns and populations grow, utilities must be able to reach capacity demands and provide access that will enable continued growth and development. As our digital world gets bigger, those countries without access to reliable, cost-effective power will lag further behind in global socio-economic standings.
Creating and improving access to power are vital parts of the “quality mix” and steps to manage them long-term must be addressed at global and local levels.
Reliability and Sustainability
Growing pressure on utilities to meet rising capacity demands impacts reliability considerably. This is particularly true when faced with inadequate and inefficient infrastructure and seasonal environmental factors, which again vary around the world.
Aging infrastructure poses a huge risk to energy security and the challenge will be overcome only if long-term solutions are considered. Time and money must be invested now to avoid massive disruptions in the future.
The U.S. power grid, for example, is worth an estimated $876 billion but uses technology dating back to the 1960s and 70s. It’s not hard, therefore, to understand why reliability is declining as both population and gross domestic product (GDP) increase, placing greater demand on that network. With hundreds of billions of dollars needed to modernize the network, however, the task is easier said than done.
For that reason, sustainable power is becoming more important. Massive capital investment isn’t feasible for most, however, improving the sustainability of power generation sources is an achievable goal. Indeed, more sustainable power may be the key to the modern power quality mix, both in terms of clean, environmentally-friendly electricity, as well as a modern infrastructure that is fit for the future.
The recent Paris climate agreement called for more sustainable sources of power generation, too.
Renewable energy has one conspicuous fault-reliability, or lack thereof. In its attempt to cut greenhouse emissions, the global utility industry will continue to invest in renewable sources of power. Intermittency, however, decreases reliability considerably. Effective contingency plans, therefore, must be in place to fill the gap wherever energy supply is reliant on renewable energy. Protecting reliability and fostering sustainability is a priority for achieving power quality.
Voltage Levels and Efficiency
Adopting innovative technologies and energy strategies that help avoid uneconomical redundancies and reduce fuel consumption and costs or both, would create a more efficient power mix globally. Updating aging infrastructure, once again, comes hand in hand with achieving this.
Old and poorly maintained transmission lines are not only less reliable, but they become less efficient as they wear out. Utilities face huge costs in reducing the negative impact this aging, poor quality infrastructure has on capacity levels. Some of those costs come from maintaining the network, as well as having to generating excessive levels of power to meet demand. These issues can lead to additional costs associated with power disruptions. These expenses are unsustainable on a global scale.
Reduced voltage levels not only increase costs for end users, but can also limit the productivity of energy-intensive industries. Ensuring power generation and transmission infrastructure is efficient and maintaining output voltage levels contributes considerably to the power quality mix.
These individual factors will continue to be a challenge for governments and utilities worldwide. They all play a role in whether high levels of power quality can be achieved. They all contribute to the mix.
While it can be difficult to create a universal definition of power quality, pinpointing the many challenges to overcome in a holistic way could be a first step toward addressing power inequality and its impact. By being mindful of end users and their ever changing needs, the global utility industry can set realistic standards that will have a more valuable impact on improving services.
Matthew Bell is head of strategic account development at Aggreko Southern Africa.