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Smart cities need smart utilities

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Sustainable energy consumption and ‘green’ energy production at home is becoming a new lifestyle. Today’s hyperconnected consumer expects a reduced environmental footprint while still enjoying seamless services and ease of use, improving their quality of life through fully digitised processes that give them complete control over every aspect of their lives.

According to IDC, 30 billion ‘things’ will be connected by 2020. Everything from cars and appliances to lights and temperature control will be connected in an interoperable network that will give consumers unprecedented control and choice over their energy use. Energy itself is also becoming more sustainable: Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts that by 2040, 72% of total new power generation capacity investment globally will go to renewable energy, with the falling cost of residential renewable energy disrupting the relationship between utility companies and their customers. This decentralisation is changing consumers into prosumers, who are able to generate energy and manage their usage in sustainable and convenient ways.

However, in Africa the picture looks distinctly different: here, the true empowerment of the energy utility lies with the interplay between consumers, utilities, connected devices and the software that links it all together in a cohesive whole.

Empowering the energy utility and its customers

Historically, the meter has been the centrepiece of the energy utility company’s relationship with its consumer. A contract is set up with the consumer to provide energy, and the meter is read to determine how much energy has been used. The utility company then bills the consumer according to their energy usage. Unless something – a billing query or outage, for example – compels the consumer to contact the utility via a call centre, the bill sent to the consumer is the only touchpoint the utility company would have with them.

However, with the advent of smart metering systems and the rise of powerful technology platforms such as SAP S/4HANA and tailored software solutions such as SAP Predictive Maintenance and Service that incorporate advanced analytics, big data, machine learning and AI, this interaction is evolving in exciting ways.

Energy utilities can now continuously collect and analyse data from smart meters, SCADA systems and sensors to determine and monitor the health of infrastructural assets. This is creating new opportunities to reimagine business processes and business models: while in the past each asset provider had its own system producing its own set of analytics, we are now able to collect all of the data from each asset into a single IoT platform in near-real time. Linking this to advanced predictive analytics capabilities enables utilities to proactively manage key assets within its value chain, driving down maintenance costs and optimising customer satisfaction through the uninterrupted supply of power.

Energy consumers are further empowered by gaining real-time visibility of consumption behaviour, enabling better energy management at a business or household level. In a smart city environment, this also enables benchmarking, which can give energy consumers insight into the energy usage of neighbours as well as at a neighbourhood, city, and potentially national level. When energy consumption levels exceed supply, utilities can better communicate with major consumers of energy and incentivise them to reduce consumption.

Disrupting 100 years of business-as-usual

Not much has changed for utility companies’ business models over the past century. However, there are three major disruptors currently challenging utility companies, namely:

  1. Decentralisation, which is changing where energy is created and how it is consumed. A famous example is Elon Musk’s Solar City, which features renewable solar roofing tiles that generate electricity at the local level.
  2. Deregulation, which is allowing a new breed of disruptive competitor to enter the market with services and devices aimed at consumers, such as the broad range of home energy monitoring and control devices and applications.
  3. Decarbonisation, which is driving the adoption of non-fossil fuel energy sources.

These three disruptors are enabling the rise of the off-grid consumer, typified by businesses and individuals who generate their own energy via renewable sources. Aside from the obvious loss of revenue, these consumers pose a further risk through their potential to sell surplus energy to their neighbours, further diverting the energy utilities’ revenue stream. In South Africa, for example, nearly all municipalities restrict consumers from selling their own generated access electricity back to the grid, and the infrastructure needed to enable such prosumers to supply excess power back into the grid is not yet in place.

However, utilities need to prioritise a journey of digital transformation that reimagines their business models and reengineers business processes. By embracing exponential technologies such as blockchain, machine learning, predictive analytics, Big Data, and IoT, and integrating it all into a cloud platform under the SAP Leonardo digital innovation system, energy utilities can fast-track their digital transformation to rapidly adopt new business models and capabilities.

With technology giants increasingly encroaching on the territory traditionally held by utility companies, and rapidly increasing customer expectations, the need to transform business models and processes has become urgent. It is critical that energy utilities prioritise their digital transformation, or they risk being left behind by an increasingly empowered and self-sufficient consumer market.

* Hannes Venter, Industry Advisor: Utilities at SAP Africa

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Welcome to world of 2099

The world of 2099 will be unrecognisable from the world of today, but it can be predicted, says one visionary. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK met him in Singapore.

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Futuristic structures tower over the landscape. Giant, alien-looking trees light up with dazzling colours amid the hundreds of plant species that grow up their trunks. Cosmetic stores sell their wares via public touch-screens, with products delivered instantly in drawers below the screens.

This is not a vision of the future. It is a sample of Singapore today. But it is also an inkling of the world we may all experience in the future.

Singapore was the venue, last week, of the World Cities Summit, where engineers, politicians, investors and visionaries rubbed shoulders as they talked about the strategies and policies that would enhance urban living in the future.

As part of the Summit, global payment technologies leader Mastercard hosted a small media briefing by one of Singapore’s leading thinkers about the future, Dr Damian Tan, managing director of Vickers Venture Partners. The company’s slogan “We invest in the extraordinary,” offers a small clue to Tan’s perspective.

“We look as far forward as 2099 because, as a venture capital firm, we invest in the long term,” he tells a group of journalists from Africa and the Middle East. “Companies explode in growth because there is value in the future. If there is no growth, they won’t explode.”

The big question that the Smart Cities Summit and Mastercard are trying to help answer is, what will cities look like in the year 2099? Tan can’t give an exact answer, but he offers a framework that helps one approach the question.

“If you want to look at 81 years into the future, and understand the change that will come, you need to double that amount and look into the past. That takes us to 1856. The difference between then and now is the difference you can expect between now and 2099.”

  •    Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube

Use the page links below to continue reading about Tan’s visions.

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Win a Poster Heater with Gadget and Takealot.com

This winter Gadget and Takealot.com are giving away three Poster Heaters, which look like posters but become heaters when you plug them in.

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Three Gadget readers will each win a unit, valued at R550 each. To enter, follow @GadgetZA and @Takealot on Twitter and tell us on the @GadgetZA account how many Watts the heater consumes.

What’s the big deal about these heaters? Many of us are struggling to keep the balance between soaring electricity costs and the need to keep warm this winter.

However, the recently launched Poster Heater by EasyHeat and distributed in South Africa by Takealot.com is not only one of the most cost effective electric heaters currently on the market, it is also easy to setup and use.

As the name indicates, it is a poster similar to one you would hang on a wall. But, plug it in and it turns into a 300 Watt heater. The Poster Heater isn’t designed to heat hallways or large rooms, but rather smaller ones like a bedroom or a baby’s nursery or a dressing room.

It uses radiant heating, which means that it heats up in a couple of minutes and the heat is directed at the objects or people around it, quickly taking the chill out of the air and providing a comfortable ambient temperature.

The other advantage of radiant heating is that it doesn’t dry out the air like infrared or gas heaters. Users also don’t have to worry about their children or pets getting too close to it because, even though it gets hot, it can be touched.

To enter the competition follow the steps below:

Competition entry details:

1. Follow @GadgetZA and @Takealot on Twitter. (We will ONLY be accepting entries via Twitter, so please don’t enter through the comments section of this article.)

2. Tell us on Twitter, via @GadgetZA, mentioning @Takealot in your posting, how many Watts the Poster Heater consumes.

cleardot.gif3. The competition closes on 31 July 2018.

4. Winners will be notified via Twitter on 1 August and Takealot.com will be in touch to organise delivery.

5. The competition is only open to South African residents.

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