Microgrids: cost-effective, sustainable and resilient


The price of electricity and cost of generation are key challenges facing large parts of Africa. Such an environment presents opportunities to implement clean small-scale energy solutions that can utilise existing infrastructure and apply Africa’s natural resources.

Webb Meko, Black & Veatch

Microgrids are low-cost, fast-track, flexible power solutions being applied all over the world, though still relatively new to South Africa and other African countries. When planned and integrated effectively, microgrid solutions provide energy security and can reduce electricity cost and emissions for industrial users, utilities, developers and communities.

Microgrids are competitively priced and these advanced systems can also be deployed quickly, with relatively short design, commissioning and construction timelines. Other larger-scale alternatives can take years to move through development and completion.

The next generation of microgrids includes the integration of renewable energy generators with fossil-fueled resources, storage and demand management. These systems enhance the reliability of remote power systems while also reducing costs and emissions.

The continent’s rapid development and uptake of mobile telecom networks and infrastructure could signal that Africa is well-positioned to similarly embrace microgrid solutions.

The integration of various power generation sources into a local microgrid helps establish a control system and balance generation with overall load. This control system can also be integrated with monitoring software to track performance and maintain the optimal balance between a microgrid’s various assets.

Reliability and emissions also improve when combining solutions such as solar PV and diesel-fueled generators, which are both backups for generation gaps.

Microgrid projects are scalable – single projects or programme deployment – and provide a unique value proposition by bringing new capacity to the grid and powering critical facilities with increased assurance. Microgrids can also be planned and built within months with modular equipment.

Programmatic approaches can be advantageous, as costs can be shared between stakeholders. Lower installation costs can also be achieved with strong project controls and effective programme management. Completing detailed upfront feasibility studies define the project or programme parameters, along with related costs and schedule. This work is important ahead of implementation that includes engaging engineering design experts, equipment suppliers, and EPC providers, depending on the desired execution approach.

A fleet of microgrids conceived at programme level can be executed through a front-end engineering and design pilot project effort, then rapidly replicated across multiple sites. Additionally, approaching microgrids as a programme enables standardisation of equipment and controls, which helps to reduce the cost on a per-project basis.

Microgrids can play a critical role in bringing much-needed power to African citizens and offset current grid challenges. Additionally, they can help achieve energy efficiency and sustainability objectives by deploying distributed energy resources, such as renewables.

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