Finding a sustainable solution for Africa
The first-generation smart meters were first deployed over a decade ago, to a certain degree of success, predominantly in North America and Europe. However, there is not only a different set of market characteristics and dynamics in Africa but also little to no quantifiable benefits of the technology set within the African context.
The World Bank postulates that most of the African continent is still in the dark after nightfall, which is disappointing in today’s world since the light bulb was invented more than a century ago. Many school children are unable to read after dusk, business growth is stunted, and clinics are unable to refrigerate medicine and vaccines, while industries remain idle. Combinations of these factors hamper economic growth, which in turn affects unemployment and livelihoods thereby creating a different reality for use of disposable income for the average African consumer.
Currently, approximately 25 sub- Saharan countries are facing a crisis due to rolling blackouts. Although the African continent is abundant with both fossil fuels and renewable resources, The World Bank says the problem is that these are not evenly distributed, creating windfall profits for some countries and exacerbating the crisis in others. In 2017, approximately 1.1 billion people (14% of the world population) did not have access to electricity. In 25 sub-Saharan African countries, more than 90% of the population lives without electricity. Per the 2017 Energy Access Outlook report, up until now, most Africans have no access to modern fuels like natural gas, kerosene or propane and still rely on traditional use of biomass for cooking.
Since the mid-1990s, external finance to Africa’s power sector has averaged only around $600 million per year of public assistance, plus a similar volume of private funding. More recently, Chinese, Indian, USA and Arab sources have also emerged as significant energy financiers. This is a major concern, as it shows that the continent is not self-sustaining and depends on foreign support. Nonetheless, it’s estimated that doubling current levels of energy access by the year 2030 will require sustained investment at much higher levels. Any slowdown in foreign capital inflows could seriously affect growth and poverty reduction in Africa as this is the last thing this continent needs. Most African countries use these foreign inflows to finance their infrastructure requirements and the lives of hundreds of millions of Africans may be threatened if cutbacks spread to official development assistance (The World Bank 2013; NEPAD 2010). There have also been multiple instances where the failure to deliver on financing contracts has resulted in African utilities having to halt the rollout of meters and grid expansion plans due to financing not forthcoming as promised.
Given the African context as outlined, it is evident that the access to energy context on the continent is very different to the energy requirements in developed countries such as in North America and Europe. The need to electrify and to connect vast numbers of the African population to energy is fundamental. Due to the large numbers of people without electricity, this would be a costly task that would span over several years. It would require a cost-effective metering solution that offers some form of control and measurement to maintain a sustainable energy management solution in Africa. We can further postulate that in order for the African utility to be self-funding, cash collection in a prepaid smart system would be ideal.
However, with the advanced capabilities of the smart meter and the high cost per unit, the following questions need to be tabled: “Is the smart meter the best solution for the African context? Is Africa being prescribed solutions that need huge budgets from corporations trying to exploit the African market?” The research done to date does not provide sufficient results to advocate that smart meters are the right metering technology for Africa in this present climate. Given the average consumption of the African consumer, the return on investment per point does not warrant the initial outlay of a smart meter. There also are further difficulties in the search for credible studies that have looked at smart electricity metering in Africa, to conclusively deduce that this technology is fit for purpose.
In recent years, the need to adopt a ‘green’ business plan and consume natural resources sustainably has been a significant focus. All sectors have embraced energy management and the need to manage resources more efficiently, especially in the generation, transmission and distribution of electric power.
The world has seen the birth of wind generators, solar farms, electric cars and smart electricity grids. The need to meter and charge for electricity has also received much attention in an attempt to protect/monitor energy consumption. In this regard, smart meters have become a subset of smart grids. Smart grids and smart meters are advanced technological solutions. However, the effectiveness of these smart solutions requires clean electricity supply and at least 99% connectivity to a communications network. The skillset to maintain and drive this system is also a requirement. In Africa, these factors can be significant barriers. The effectiveness of smart electricity metering as a solution for utilities to resolve energy management issues in the African market is under the microscope.
Major corporations have invested in substantial marketing campaigns to promote smart metering and smart grids. The benefits of these solutions are being aggrandised as compulsory requirements that need urgent investment. Utilities need to evaluate the solution to ascertain the maximum benefit that would be realised after deployment and use their budgets wisely to invest in technology that would yield a return on investment.
Berg (2013) highlights one of the misconceptions of the market, which is that smart metering is the answer to poor reticulation and distribution. However, the efficiency of smart metering depends on the reliability of the reticulation and distribution, i.e., the electricity supply needs to be consistent and clean, and the communications networks need to be permanently functional. Massive investment is required to ensure high voltage (HV) and medium voltage (MV) infrastructure upgrades. The infrastructure setup costs to implement smart metering are significantly high. African countries need to understand the significant financial investment required to fund smart metering as a sustainable form of energy management.
In the Metering Debate in Nigeria reveals Africa’s underlying market Challenges report, Stabrawa states that the demand for electricity is set to grow across Africa, and one of the critical drivers for the deployment of smart meters will be demand-side management. However, smart metering activity currently remains low in Africa, with only a few installations taking place to date in South Africa. According to the International Data Corporation’s Quarterly Worldwide Smart Meter Tracker, in 2011, smart meter shipments in Africa represented only around 1% of the total volume of smart meters shipped globally that year. In the short to medium term, prospects for more dynamic growth in Africa are somewhat limited, particularly when compared with other regions such as Asia and Europe.
Although the situation differs from country to country; the general problem in Africa comes down to the overall state of existing national electricity sectors. For the business case to be supported for advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), it ultimately depends upon a functioning market for electricity. Stabrawa (2012) further postulates that this can be illustrated using Nigeria as an example, where local authorities recently ordered a massive deployment of pre-paid meters within the next 18 months after finding that:
• Approximately 55% of all customers registered in the country are either not metered at all or have no functional meter.
• Despite having stock, private-owned distribution companies have been reluctant to install electricity meters.
• The practice of estimating electricity bills has led to arbitrary charges, posing a considerable risk and subsequent losses.
The decision to install pre-paid meters and the acknowledgement of their existing problems is a step in the right direction. However, the question remains whether other socio-economic issues, arguably more pressing, may require more immediate attention.
Each region in the African continent is different; therefore, it is important how you approach the rollout of smart electricity meters in Africa. The challenge that African utilities face is how to effectively make electricity accessible to consumers, and the electrification rates demonstrate that masses of people across Africa need to be connected to the grid. The implications of generation, transmission and distribution need to be addressed; however, the point of connection will be the electricity meter at the consumer’s premises.
The smart meter market will gain momentum in Africa in the coming years, as the benefits of smart meters address most of the utilities’ current problems such as revenue protection, time of use tariffs etc. Unfortunately, technology cannot solvable all the issues, some of which involve socioeconomic scenarios. However, it is going to be interesting to watch the African smart metering market evolve over the next few years with greater consideration that needs to be given to the total cost of ownership of the meter per point.
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