New innovations at UP spark modernisation of SA electrical grid

The South African electrical grid system has gone from the once world-class energy infrastructure of the 1980’s to a steadily deteriorating and barely maintained service today.

The South African electrical grid system has gone from the once world-class energy infrastructure of the 1980’s to a steadily deteriorating and barely maintained service today. UP researchers are addressing this by integrating communication and data collection technologies to provide more information on the state of the grid.

The integration of this new technology affects not only the national electricity system, but can also improve efficiency in residential, commercial and industrial sectors. It does this by collecting important information from sensors in electrical systems that can reduce wastage and help investigate alternative sources of energy for specific tasks and times.

This is where the Power group of the Department of Electrical, Electronic and Computer Engineering (EECE) at the University of Pretoria comes in. Led by Prof Ramesh Bansal, the group is looking at how best to integrate renewable energy sources into conventional power systems using what they call smart grids.

Dr Raj Naidoo, who heads up smart grids research in the Power group, explains the concept using a banking analogy.

“Before internet banking, you would go into a bank and stand in a queue to make a deposit or a withdrawal. You would have to spend a lot of time there and it was very inefficient,” he explains. “Then the internet came along, which allows you to do the same things, but quicker and more efficiently.”

Internet banking revolutionised the banking industry by using the power of the internet to have the many components of banking communicating in a network that ultimately makes it easier for the consumer. In the same way, the old electrical grid can benefit from the connectivity that comes with sensors and smart devices sharing information about the many components of the electrical grid from national to residential level.

By deploying sensor technology, engineers working on an electrical grid can gain extra information about the status of the grid which ultimately improves the efficiency of the system.

This can help to reduce wear and tear, extend the lifetime of the grid, and improve future grid design.

For the household, the smart grid gives information on energy use in the house which can in turn advise on cost saving activities such as incorporating systems like solar water heaters or double glazing on windows.

The data can be used by municipal managers to properly shape pricing for electricity and forecast future power demands to service the community better. Smart grids can maintain productivity for a company in the commercial sector by integrating secondary power sources and prioritising them accordingly.

For industry, smart grid technology can vastly improve the efficiency of various electronic components. For instance, Naidoo’s group has recently developed technology to improve motor efficiencies.

Lastly, the Power group has thought ahead and are working with the South African National Energy Development Institute (SANEDI) and the South African Department of Energy (DoE)to understand and prevent the potential data security threats that might compromise smart grids.

Ultimately, smart grid technology is focussed on collecting more information on how electricity and power is being used, in order to make better management decisions. The Power group is currently building a dedicated smart grids laboratory to do this type of modelling, as part of work with SANEDI and the DoE.

Dr Raj Naidoo of the EECE and his students use data produced by smart grids to improve energy efficiency and help design better electrical systems.