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Featured image: African Utility Week opening session

Exclusive interview with Mlungisi Mkhwanazi, Director of the Africa Utilities Technology Council (AUTC), a returning industry partner of African Utility Week and POWERGEN Africa in Cape Town in May.

The AUTC will also present a strategic conference co-located to the event.

Welcome back again to African Utility Week and POWERGEN Africa as a co-located event and as an association partner. Please can we start with some background on the AUTC and the goals of the organization?
Great to be back in the buzz of utilities in Africa, looking forward to a conference that will showcase the latest technologies and their application to the utilities sector.

AUTC as the African chapter of the Utilities Technology Council was founded in December 2015 by a number of utilities and municipalities.

The main objective is to bring together like-minded organisations to collaborate on various platforms within the information and communications technology (ICT) applied by, the utilities themselves to enhance reliability, efficiency, and grid modernization.

Because utilities provision telecommunications networks that are both wireline (copper or fibre) and wireless, AUTC focuses on issues that impact these networks on the technologies they enable, such as SCADA, sensors, and teleprotection. These issues include access to reliable and affordable radio-spectrum (needed to deploy any wireless network or device), OT/IT convergence, cyber security and issues surrounding deployment of fibre optics,  just to name a few. We also create a learning environment where we bring together utilities and OEMs to provide working solutions to our current technological challenges.

This year the AUTC has a smaller role at African Utility Week and POWERGEN Africa, including one hour on the exhibition floor and two conference speakers. Can you give us more information what delegates can expect in May?
Our tracks in May will concentrate on the technology application in the energy sector, in terms of creating and maintaining critical infrastructure that is resilient and dependable. In addition to this, AUTC will also look at the benefits of keeping the ICT in-house versus having it be deployed by a communications provider. The changing playing fields in the ICT space dictates that the utilities should find cost-effective and optimal ways of rolling out their critical infrastructure programs.

Because of its affiliation with UTC, AUTC plans on including speakers from other parts of the globe who have had experience with the challenges and opportunities of “private” or in-house ICT deployments by utilities and who can help to avoid pitfalls.

Given the focus on 5G, during its time at AUW, AUTC will also provide an overview of the recently released UTC/AUTC whitepaper entitled: —“Cutting Through the Hype: 5G and Its Potential Impacts on Electric Utilities.”

Why is it important for utility, telecoms and ICT to be together at a utility event?
We have come to realise that the model that works best for any utility is to have telecoms operated in-house because of the high levels of reliable service required by utilities and given the future of the electric grid requiring a more flexible grid – a situation only enabled by communications. Telecoms can then offer carrier services to the IT department for enterprise purposes – billing, website, etc. At the same time, the telecoms providers need reliable electricity to deliver their products.  Utilities and telecoms depend on each other and both use similar OEMs and have similar supply chain requirements. 

Do you think that the merger of utilities, ICT and telecoms is inevitable? What is your vision?
AUTC believes that there’s enough space for the three entities to exist in a mutually exclusive environment. The ICT and telecoms entities business case tends to look at the profitability and expand with the location of the end users. Whilst utilities’ business case is not driven by profitability but by the coverage of the existing and future assets in the network. The focus for the three entities is fundamentally different. Utilities will move mountains to get SCADA from an outstation/end-point, whilst in the ICT and telecoms space, it’s a numbers game.

What are the main challenges in the utility sector on the continent in your view?
As alluded to in an earlier question, the rollout of renewables is changing the face of traditional energy-mix businesses. Utilities are asking how they can embrace renewables and remain sustainable with new business models and favourable revenue streams which allow their infrastructure and systems investments to be maximised. Although the cost of renewable projects has been decreasing over the last five years, the funding remains an issue due to geo-political tensions in some areas of our continent. Some of these challenges can be solved with the appropriate communications technology that maximises utility infrastructure through greater understanding of grid operations as renewables are added.

What will be AUTC’s main message at African Utility Week and POWERGEN Africa?
Collaborative engagement and knowledge sharing between utilities both in Africa and globally is essential to ensure reliable electricity with integrating renewable energy. It is imperative that we learn from utilities across the world, thus cross pollinate our experiences and avoid sink holes from a technological angle. Education becomes expensive and painful when you only learn from your mistakes.

How important is African Utility Week and POWERGEN Africa for the utility sector?
African Utility Week and POWERGEN Africa represents a concentration of thought leaders as well as great minds in the utility space. A vast area of the display floor is dedicated to showcasing the new and latest technologies that can assist utilities in achieving their respective technological deployment objectives. It is also a place where like-minded leaders meet to share experiences and possible collaborations. The main sponsor has been doing well in bringing these utilities together for the sake of Africa’s progress. Improvement of access to clean water, electricity outages due to load shedding, sourcing funding for the mega projects and exposure to working/thriving utilities remains the leading motivation for the Africa to meet in this fashion.