Disruptive technologies and their effect on power utilities


Dr. Prathaban Moodley

The South African Institute of Electrical Engineers (SAIEE) held its “President’s Invitation Lecture” at the University of Johannesburg recently. Dr. Prathaban Moodley, the acting technology strategy manager at Eskom Research, Testing and Development, addressed an audience of 95 delegates on the topic of how incremental and disruptive technologies affect power utilities.

People have had to adapt to technological changes over the years, he said, citing examples such as how the introduction of the electric light bulb virtually destroyed the whaling industry (whale oil had previously been used for lighting purposes).

Other examples of disruptive technologies include how the automobile took horses and carts off the roads, and ultimately resulted in better road surfaces being laid down; how mobile phones disrupted the wired communications network while adding functionality which the wired network could not offer; and how email communications have disrupted the postal services.

Moving from an historical perspective, Dr. Moodley made predictions regarding how future technological developments could change the way we live and work in the future. He said that Eskom has already started using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which are commonly known as “drones”, to inspect and photograph insulators on its network of powerline pylons. This task had previously been undertaken by specially trained people who either flew past the pylon in an aeroplane or climbed the tower to make the inspection.


Dr. Moodley identified four major technological disruptors: the internet of things (IoT); big data; advanced analytics; and robotics.

He said that the advent of IoT technology will enable expensive electrical assets such as transformers to send status information to centralised control centres. This information would come from sensors embedded in the transformer and would record important metrics such as temperature, gas leaks, dielectric moisture, oil-level, and so on. This information would be invaluable to the power utility because it could warn the utility, by means of big data, of an impending problem and trigger a preventative maintenance action, by means of advanced analytics, thereby saving the utility a lot of money.

Other disruptors include energy storage; clean coal technologies; residential PV (off-grid); energy efficiency and DSM; electric vehicles and solar augmentation.


Dr. Moodley said that new technologies are generally easier to introduce because they are typically employed in small projects which need only seed financing. He suggested that entrepreneurs who desire to introduce new technologies into the energy sector should:

  • Be able to use agile development tools such as 3D printers for rapid prototyping.
  • Address actual “pain” points so as to successfully overcome problems.
  • Be prepared for disruptors by looking at active trends.
  • Have business models which offer a service-level differentiation.
  • Maintain a view of the end-user’s requirements.
  • Have the vision to see the “next big thing”, leap-frog existing products and offer innovative solutions.

Distributed generation

Another disrupter is distributed generation, Dr. Moodley said. The existing infrastructure is designed to send electricity from large power stations situated near a fuel source. Coal-fired power stations are located near coal mines, for example. Distributed generation allows power generation to take place near the load centre. This saves the need for expensive power lines and removes the losses incurred over those lines and in the various transformers. It will also result in fewer outages.

Distributed generation will be a disrupter because electricity will start to flow in directions along distribution wires and cables in a different way. This requires the installation of additional safety equipment and new operational procedures to be designed, compiled and taught to technicians and operators.

Distributed generation is possible because the fuel source does not need to be mined – it is supplied by the wind and the sun. There is therefore no need to transport fuel or be concerned about environmental damage being caused by these electricity generators.

Although power utilities are large organisations which take many years to change, change is inevitable. Significant change can be expected within the next decade, Dr. Moodley said.


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