African Utility Week: The role of digital solutions in driving energy for the future

African Utility Week, like our GSMA Mobile for Development (M4D) Utilities Programme, has the unique and exciting role of bringing together the energy, water and sanitation industries, including both on- and off-grid service providers. So naturally, we were excited to present at this Cape Town event in a session about ‘Future Cities’ (although this reflected the rest of the conference with a focus on energy). The event also included sessions on the theme of ‘Energy Revolution’ which focused on renewables and the intersection of centralised and decentralised, or off-grid utility services. Meanwhile, a number of utility metering companies displayed their latest products in a large expo to encourage their next clients. In summary, what’s clear from this event is that Africa is on the road toward digitised utility services, and though getting there is a challenge, digitisation is going to be at the forefront of the integration of centralised and decentralised services that is required to achieve universal access to energy.

Utilities 2.0 and the need for digital

Last week, our blog documented the growing momentum in the mini-grid sector with increasing investment, government support and private sector engagement, as well as the key role of digital solutions for metering, payments and load management. This momentum was apparent at African Utility Week where a few mini-grid and off-grid sessions featured the new Utilities 2.0 initiative, supported by Power for All, Umeme Ltd (Uganda’s national electricity utility), The Rockefeller Foundation and a coalition of decentralised renewable energy companies:

“Utilities 2.0 is designed to combine centralised and decentralised technology into an integrated, intelligent and interactive energy network that can deliver customer-centric, clean energy solutions to end energy poverty at the lowest cost, in the fastest time.” (Source: Power for All)

This calls for evolving energy models from large-scale centralised generation, often with singular state ownership and challenges in reaching rural areas economically, to models with mixed and localised generation, and diversified ownership and operation. The Utilities 2.0 model emphasises private-sector delivery to support more consumer-centric service and optimised operations, with regulation based on monitoring service delivery – all of which require digital solutions. Indeed, “With regards to reliability, metering, data networks and sensing, the data and digitisation that underpin Utilities 2.0 can improve capacity to predict and respond to outages, as well as technical and non-technical losses” (Source: Power for All). The table below from the report captures the role of digital solutions in Utilities 2.0 world (DRE = decentralised renewable energy).

The M4D Utilities programme adds its voice to this initiative, in particular to advocate for the key role that we’ve demonstrated digital solutions play in expanding energy access. From mini-grids, to solar home systems and centralised grids, we’ve supported energy service providers and mobile operators to deploy these digital enablers, from smart-metering, to digital payments and system monitoring. For more information about these pilots, check out our Annual Report.

As this initiative gains traction, reliable connectivity and smart-meters suited to mini-grids will become even more important. As evident at the African Utility Week expo booths, the majority of products and sales are still oriented around PLC (wired) communication for urban environments. Few of the large-scale meter companies are providing affordable household meters to suit the demands and conditions for minigrids, as such companies like SteamaCo and Spark Meter do. In the coming years, we expect to see more development in this market.

Alongside this, we expect mobile operators to find increased demand for, and value in, expanding networks that not only provide communication for decentralised solutions to operate efficiently, but also provide a foundation for the economic growth that will be key to the long-term financial viability of mini-grids. For example, bringing 3G networks to a mini-grid community can enable increased smartphone penetration to support business needs, as demonstrated in our Gham Power case study. Some mobile operators will also see an opportunity to provide a full metering solution, accompanied by mobile payments, as Orange Burkina Faso is trialling supported by our M4D Utilities Innovation Fund.

“Meter, meter on the wall….which is the best of them all?”

Cities of the future will depend on harmonised digital solutions and planning

A key theme was preparing for integration between centralised and decentralised energy services. At the city level, this integration is already happening with the inclusion of more renewable generation. Points from two sessions stood out on this topic, about how we prepare from both a technical and a social perspective.

On the technical side, Chairman and CEO of El Sewedy Electrometer, Emad El Sewedy, introduced their ‘unified smart metering solution’ that is the first in the Middle East and Africa region to provide electricity, water and gas metering through a single ‘Universal Management Software System’. Their platform was designed to be future proof by working with any communication network (wired or wireless), while taking advantage of existing fibre optics and cellular networks, and offering interoperability with other third party devices, so that it is vendor neutral. As we try to imagine what our ‘smart cities’ will look like, this type of integrated design thinking seems important to avoid customers having to interact with multiple meter platforms and help utility providers avoid redundant platform costs.

El Sewedy Electrometer display of their unified smart metering solution

On the social side, we moderated a diverse session entitled, ‘Data access through IoT is changing the African energy landscape – expectations and future’, where it was clear that cities of the future will demand design with an ecosystem approach from the start. The panel included two representatives of very different ‘enabling’ organisations: Max Pichulik, of Impact Amplifier which supports entrepreneurs to address Africa’s socio-economic and environmental challenges, and Sandiswe Ncemane of the Coega Development Corporation, a state-owned enterprise which creates enabling environments for industry in South Africa – including access to reliable utility services. They were accompanied by two organisations who measure energy services for very different clients: Taru Mandangombe of Schneider Electric, which provides energy management technology, and Kimenthrie Pillay of Thrie Energy Collective which uses smartphones to conduct energy access surveys to gather feedback from users on low-income energy interventions.

This group found consensus on the need for stronger design of integrated energy services with all pieces of the energy ecosystem – from generation, to serving both industry and low-income households – to be taken into account, and the need to train engineers with this view. In other words, the smart systems will only take us so far, and we’ll need to develop humans that think in terms of integrated energy. Of course, we know that energy services aren’t really designed with a blank slate these days, but as we move fast into a world of more integrated services, integrated planning and development will be essential.

We enjoyed our week at African Utility Week and want to thank the organisers for inviting us to present and moderate!

The GSMA Mobile for Development (M4D) Utilities programme is funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), USAID as part of its commitment to Scaling Off-Grid Energy Grand Challenge for Development and supported by the GSMA and its members.

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