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Energy sector requires strong digital foundation

By Jonathan Duncan, Schneider Electric Anglophone Africa Vice President for IT Division

As the world embraces the benefits of new connected technologies, South Africa needs to invest in digitisation of its electrical network before we can start realising the benefits of having accurate and up-to-date network usage information at our fingertips. Being digitised and connected to intelligent devices on the electrical network is paramount to being able to monitor energy consumption and reduce energy waste.

In addition to the benefits new technology brings to the energy sector, it also brings increased pressure on electricity supply. The exponential growth of “smart technologies” presents a sizable increase to energy demand.

ADDRESSING THE ENERGY GAP, END-TO-END

As the adage goes, we can only manage what we can measure. As South Africa battles at local level with ‘last mile’ power distribution, an end-to-end monitoring solution is crucial if we want to see any return on investments into digitisation.

From a Schneider Electric position, our biggest contribution lies in metering. A range of connected equipment can monitor and meter your power consumption, and valuable information can be gleaned from this.

There is a big drive now to move into; what do we do with this information? This famously termed ‘Big Data’. Once you’ve got all that information coming through, how do we action it and drive a meaningful result on this information? Huge potential here lies in continuously analysing incoming and historical data to predict the next potential failure. For example, in an industrial environment, we need to know where the energy is going and how much energy is going into each application and try to understand what is working most efficiently. Energy – it is finite. Unless we know how to be most efficient – through accurate measuring – we can’t keep demanding more and more energy. We need to be looking at who is operating most efficiently and how we drive the adoption of those best practices across the globe.

THAT’S JUST THE START

Once we start gathering the information from smart devices or sensors, then comes the big payoff; what we do with the information. Feeding data into a machine learning system, for example, could bring huge benefits to energy management through artificial intelligence (AI).

AI can learn quickly and be highly accurate in its forecast, which will be ever-improving. For me, AI is key in telling you different factors in whether we’re going to experience a grid overload. AI is probably the only way to properly manage these contributing factors.

Of course, with all this connectivity comes a serious need to consider cybersecurity. At Schneider Electric we place much emphasis on creating connected devices that are resilient to cyber-attack, a key threat. Every vendor should be spending vast amounts of R&D investment to make sure they are not accessible and hackable. This is especially vital as we start moving towards autonomy. 

CRITICAL INSIGHTS ENABLED

While automation is unfortunately difficult to implement at a municipal level, there is much that can be done by effectively utilising data fed into an aggregated system. Today we build power grids for unanticipated peak demand. Once we have accurate data coming in, we can start understanding what is critical and what can be shed.

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