‘Geospatial Technology has helped Eskom to improve efficiency, cut costs’

‘Geospatial Technology has helped Eskom to improve efficiency, cut costs’

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Mfundi E. Songo, Eskom Technology, South Africa
Mfundi E. Songo
Senior Manager: Planning COE & GIS, Eskom Technology

Geospatial technology is an integral part of the functioning of Eskom and is being used widely by the organisation to manage all its aspects from infrastructure monitoring and planning to electricity generation and distribution. Besides, the technology has also led to significant reduction in the organisation’s operating costs. Eskom Senior Manager, Mfundi E. Songo highlights the significance of geospatial technology in his organisation…

How does Eskom use geospatial technology?

At Eskom, we apply GIS in almost all major infrastructures in the network. Before a power station is constructed, to study the site and make sure whether it would have underground water or whether there are certain types of rocks, what are the types of soil layers in the area etc. is all analysed using GIS. Apart from that, amongst our fleet of power stations, we have got the old power stations that are nearly 50 years old and the relatively newer ones that are about 20 years old. The age and complexity of these power stations makes it extremely difficult to figure out the exact time when a mechanical structure may require maintenance. However, with the technology that we have, including GIS, LiDAR, hyperspectral imaging, overhead flying etc, we are in a position to determine a lot of important information about these power stations. Once you know how the power station would be built and how all the things will be stacked in there, then you need a three dimensional model and that is where geospatial technology comes in as well. For example, our GIS system specialist, who was modelling the nuclear power station, wanted to find out where a certain bolt would be located. With the help of the model, he could track that accurately up to about 1 mm. In another instance, for new power stations, there was a need to monitor the wind direction relative to the location of the people, to know exactly where the fumes would go or where the debris will fly during mining. Thus, the entire infrastructure in the station was built using GIS in order to ensure high accuracy.

Have all your plants been designed using GIS or are the new plants being modelled now?

Most new plants are built using GIS. For the older ones, the technology is being used now to fly over and assess how it would be built if a certain portion were to break. Geospatial technology also makes it possible to identify whether a structure is shifting or if the foundations are weakening. Thus, the technology plays a crucial part in informing and reducing cost because if something breaks down while the station is in service, it could lead to huge losses. For example, around 12-13 years back, there was an accident in a power station which cost almost 3 billion ZAR. However, if we had infrared technologies or 3D analysis techniques at that stage, such a huge loss would have been avoided.

Does Eskom only produce thermal energy or other forms of energy as well? Apart from generation, is Eskom also using these technologies in distribution?

On an average, Eskom generates around 95% of the total electricity generated in South Africa, out of which close to 88% is generated from coal. Apart from that, we also have hydro power and gas turbines along the coast. Besides, we also boast of having the only nuclear power station in Africa, which supplies 1800 mega watts of electricity.

Every year, we construct around 800 to 900 km of distribution lines. It means that during the next 10 years, we are going to add around 9000 to 10000 km of lines. Amongst these, there are a lot of internal lines which are about 400 to 600 km long and pass though varied terrain such as waterways, different soil types, rocks and settlements. We use GIS extensively to manage these lines. There are times when we have to sterilise the impact of electromagnetic fields, which requires detailed engineering design and that is where GIS becomes handy.

Are all the lines of Eskom mapped on GIS?

Yes, all our lines have been mapped, right up to the household level. For us, transmission is anything over 132 KV. The transmission infrastructure is the backbone of the country. At the distribution level too, we have the tiniest things mapped. We even map how households are going to be electrified, in collaboration with the municipalities. While the municipalities are doing that, they come to us for mapping since they do not have the required capacity. We have such accurate information that can tell where a particular house is and how much is the consumption per month. We outsource the mapping to private companies as we are basically a promoter and user of state of the art technology.

The technology has also helped us immensely in distribution maintenance. We have got some dense forests where if a line breaks down 30 km away, it will take you a minimum of 1 hour just to reach the spot. However, we have developed software wherein a helicopter will fly over the line and check all the defects. Subsequently, the data would be processed within 30 minutes, whereas it used to take almost 1 week to process manually. On the distribution front, we have the kilowatts per household. We have the location, the type of connection, the size etc, all in our database.

How many years did it take to map the entire network?

The whole thing has been going on for nearly 15-20 years.

How have things improved since all this was mapped? How has the effect been on the transmission and distribution losses? Has any study been done on the kind of return on investment?

Things have improved dramatically. A major factor is the reduction in turnaround times in terms of the work schedules or the knowledge of where customers are. The use of technology has also cut costs. We carry the design phase up to its maximum possible limit, so that when it comes to execution, everything has already been analysed. In terms of the patches, you know the exact number of kilometres, and thus you can find out the exact number of nuts and bolts required. The inventory is decreasing as we know exactly what is required. While earlier we used to have a large space, but now we know exactly how many items are there in stock and thus place a new order when the quantity drops below a certain level.

The losses have decreased significantly. There has been significant reduction in theft; the turnaround time as well as the downtime has gone down significantly. We have installed fault locators with GPRS systems which instantly send signals to the maintenance people in case something happens.

While there are no exact figures, but if you look at our capital, it is about 30 billion per annum, which would have been 35 billion without the use of geographic information systems. So, we end up saving 20-25% on our costs.

Tell us about the Centre of Excellence? What are the future plans of Centre of Excellence to manage the growing demand of electricity in the country?

There are several centres of excellence in Eskom. The centres ensure that the technology being used, the standards that are applied and the techniques used, are all of international benchmark standards and they all work towards the Eskom strategies. So the Centre of Excellence provides standards and guidelines on which technology you can choose and use. Once you have chosen that technology, then they monitor if you are using it correctly or are you expected to modify it in a certain way. So, the Centre of Excellence combines research, practice and day to day applications in research and makes sure that Eskom is always on its toes. For example, in planning, there is distribution planning and transmission planning. There are standards, which say that you can only have planning for certain voltages. So, the planner now has a guideline that he has to work within.

The Centre of Excellence is funded by Eskom but we have collaboration with the universities on how to manage talent, how to motivate young engineers or senior engineers and how to fine tune them to see themselves as part of the world and not just a part of Eskom.

Going ahead, we are planning to have a dedicated resource because right now we do not have a lot of people looking after electrification. As of now, we help government as and when required. In order to make this work, we have already recruited geospatial graduates. Over holidays, they come and work in Eskom; and when they finish their studies, we take them to the field for hands on practice. We are working with almost all the countries in the world that are working on electrification programmes including Brazil, China, India etc. From the resources perspective, we are working in collaboration with educational institutes, high schools, governments etc.