Smart cities need smart energy solutions

The challenges currently facing Africa’s energy sector are urging private businesses, communities and educational institutions to curtail their dependence on the traditional, centralised model of linear power generation and delivery, and to identify efficient power generation solutions. Siemens South Africa put its Smart City vision into action by implementing a real-life local case study, and the results show that smart cities are within reach. 

Sabine Dall’Omo

Fourteen months ago, the company installed a microgrid at its headquarters in Midrand and data shows that 50% of the energy it uses now comes from its solar resources. By extracting energy off its microgrid, the company has saved 2435 MWh. That translates into 174 MWh per month, which represents 50% of the office park’s normal consumption. To put this into perspective, the 174 MWh saved by using the microgrid each month is the same amount of energy used by 50 average South Africa households per year.

The project provides a showcase for the company’s vision of smart cities across Africa. This small-scale example shows that it doesn’t have to remain a futuristic dream – it’s a reality that we can start working toward today. We already have a proven solution that will help save energy, cut costs, lower carbon emissions and ensure uninterrupted power. Everything from installation to operating costs have been tracked to present a realistic case study for the South African context, and the results to date are convincing.

The distributed energy system (DES), as the solution is known, installed at our office park, serves as an active example of our belief in the solution and the sustained benefits it creates. It’s a miniature version of a smart city and proves that this is an achievable goal. The real-life case study, implemented in an existing office building, shows impressive savings in terms of cost, as well as harmful emissions (2460 t of CO2 saved to date). The office park accommodates 800 to 1000 workers every day.

Combining efforts from local and global experts, this is the first DES solution of its kind in Africa. It is also the first time the company has installed the system at one of its own buildings. This solution corresponds with the company’s goal to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030 through energy efficiency, decentralised energy systems, and the purchasing of clean electricity. The system can be replicated and adapted to provide reliable, more efficient power to businesses, corporate parks, manufacturing plants, hospitals, schools, small communities and large-scale smart cities.

The results from the company’s DES study are very encouraging. To date, the company has recorded 14 months of uninterrupted power. It has saved about 2460 t of CO2 since the system was opened. It has also saved money by not having to buy 174 000 kWh of electricity per month from a power utility. The saving represents exactly 50% of the baseline consumption – but the past few months have shown closer to 60% lower consumption due to system optimisation and battery usage.

The initial payback period calculated for the system was 11,1 years including capex, financing, maintenance and conservative power price inflation. With tariff increases, however, and taking the actual production figures into consideration, the company is confident that the full payback will be achievable in under ten years.

The system is built around a 1 MW PV-solar plant strategically positioned throughout the company’s office campus and takes full advantage of the African sun. Captured solar power is then integrated into the microgrid controller. Excess energy is stored in a 140 kWh battery with the entire system being monitored, visualised and controlled via an IoT (Internet of Things) energy platform.

Distributed energy systems are the ideal solution for Africa because they’re designed to be adaptable. It also means you can have diverse power supplies, such as solar or wind during the day, then switch over to other forms of generation like biomass when the conditions for renewable energy sources are poor.

One of the most exciting aspects of a microgrid system is the potential for storing and exchanging power. For example, an office park which generates a lot of power during the day could sell that stored power to a nearby residential community for use after dark. Depending on the setup, any power generated by the community  during the night could in turn be sold back to the office park for use during the day. Such symbiotic relationships between business and communities could result in massive savings across the board and make huge leaps toward a cleaner energy environment in South Africa.

Siemens DES is designed to provide uninterrupted power and ensure a steady and reliable electricity supply for the continent’s growing demand. Industrial complexes, hospitals, corporate parks and small communities could also reduce their energy costs, ensure a continuous supply of electricity and improve their operations by adapting similar strategies and implementing a similar solution.

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