AI could be the mighty ally in SA's energy battle—shaping a greener and resilient future

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AI could be the mighty ally in SA's energy battle—shaping a greener and resilient future
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AI could be the mighty ally in SA's energy battle—shaping a greener and resilient future
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AI could be the mighty ally in SA's energy battle—shaping a greener and resilient future

  • Harnessing creativity, innovation, and a long-term vision is vital to tackle the energy crunch.
  • Unlocking the true potential of AI could revolutionise SA's energy sector turning it into a well-oiled machine.
  • To achieve this, we must prioritise clear and forward-looking AI adoption policies and strategic investments in AI education and training programmes.
  • Wesgro's inaugural Business Outlook conference in July spotlighted AI's immense potential in enhancing energy supply and sustainability.

Wrenelle Stander

In the ongoing fight against power outages, which have put a drag on SA’s economy, one thing is abundantly clear: the country needs more than just quick fixes to create a future where energy deficits become a distant memory.

The solution requires creativity, innovation, and a long-term approach. This is where the potential of Artificial Intelligence (AI) could shine through. AI replicates human intelligence in machines, enabling them to handle tasks that typically rely on human cognitive abilities, such as learning, reasoning, problem-solving, and decision-making—but at lightning speed. Effectively harnessing AI can be a game-changer for SA's energy ecosystem and green transition, offering significant benefits.

AI holds the potential to transform the energy sector into a well-oiled and resilient powerhouse. By tapping into the potential of AI, we can better manage and source our energy supply, paving the way for a brighter, greener, and more prosperous country. To make this a reality, we must prioritise clear and forward-looking AI adoption policies, along with strategic investments in AI education and training programmes.

In July Wesgro, the official agency responsible for promoting tourism, trade, and investment in Cape Town and the Western Cape, hosted its inaugural Business Outlook conference—a critical gathering of key leaders from both the public and private sectors, along with renewable energy pioneers. The urgency of finding solutions to the pressing energy challenges troubling the nation took centre stage, with a clear focus on harnessing green alternatives and utilising new technologies.

In a compelling keynote address, Martin Svensson, the CEO of AI Sweden, emphasised the immense potential of AI to transform and stabilise a country’s energy ecosystem. With a vision that could reshape demand optimisation and energy trading, he presented a unique opportunity to confront our energy deficits head-on, while propelling our sustainability efforts forward. By seizing this opportunity, we can pave the way for a greener and more resilient future, ultimately ensuring SA's prosperity.

Lessons for SA

Sweden, Svensson highlighted, stands on the precipice of transforming its energy planning through the implementation of an AI-driven national platform. This initiative strives to predict future energy demand with unmatched accuracy, granting authorities the power to shape the nation's energy landscape with strategic precision.

Similarly, countries like Australia and China are leveraging AI and advanced technologies to expand their energy grids and enhance efficiency, paving the way for sustainable systems of the future.

SA can draw valuable lessons from these nations and leverage AI to ensure no community is left in the dark. Our energy challenge for the most part centres around demand management. As the population grows, electricity demand is poised to surge further. Conventional demand forecasting methods fall short in our fast-changing world. Enter AI – the potential solution. By analysing extensive historical data, AI algorithms can predict consumption patterns with unmatched precision. Its predictive prowess empowers utilities to anticipate peak demand and optimise energy distribution, curbing loadshedding (power outage) incidents.

Various commentators and experts have looked into how AI can aid the green transition in particular. In this World Economic Forum article, the authors point to the vital role of AI in the energy sector. However, the authors correctly acknowledge that AI alone is not the answer. Aggressive political and corporate commitments to emission reduction and sustainable energy supply are indispensable. Nonetheless, in the face of the urgent, vast, and intricate energy crisis that we are facing in SA, we must utilise every available tool. AI, when wielded effectively, will foster innovation, and play a key role in the drive to establish a secure, resilient, and affordable clean energy system.

A resilient energy infrastructure relies on a robust and adaptable grid. AI can optimise grid operations and maintenance, detecting faults, and scheduling pre-emptive maintenance to enhance reliability. Furthermore, AI enables real-time grid balancing, integrating renewable sources for uninterrupted electricity supply.

AI can potentially address energy challenges in SA by improving grid access and capacity. AI-driven planning tools could identify areas with limited energy access, enabling efficient deployment of power generation and transmission infrastructure. This targeted approach connects remote communities, fostering socio-economic growth through smart investments.

A sustainable energy future

Imagine a future where every home and business form a connected grid, sharing data and insights. AI algorithms can efficiently process this information, optimising energy supply to avoid peak-time overloads. This could cut loadshedding and reduce overall energy consumption, paving the way for a greener, sustainable future.

Picture an intelligent energy management system that automatically adjusts electricity usage in industries and households during peak hours. AI-powered demand response mechanisms incentivise users to cut back during critical periods, easing the strain on the grid and minimising loadshedding. By encouraging energy conservation through smart metering and AI-driven insights, citizens can be able to actively participate in stabilising SA's energy ecosystem.

Thankfully, the City of Cape Town is looking to adopt forward-looking and innovative solutions that could help reduce the impact of loadshedding on business and homes soon.

During the Wesgro Business Outlook conference, Kadri Nassiep, the City of Cape Town's executive director for energy, emphasised their pursuit of solutions to maintain essential services for commercial customers during the day (so that disruption to economic activity is kept to a minimal), while ensuring residential customers' basic needs are protected. The city has been offered the chance to join a national pilot programme, which involves sequentially switching off non-essential loads like swimming pool pumps and air conditioning, and gradually reducing energy usage in households to preserve key essentials such as lighting, plugs, and basic security and food requirements. AI can significantly contribute to this endeavour.

To effectively address the energy crunch and embrace cutting-edge technologies, we require substantial capital and a skilled workforce, making partnerships essential. Crucially, we also need to have clear policies and guidelines that will accelerate AI development and adoption in the country. Collaborating closely with educational institutions is key, and fortunately, we have strong foundations to build upon.

Prof. Wikus van Niekerk, of Stellenbosch University, highlighted during the Business Outlook conference panel discussion the ongoing research at universities, delving into various energy supply and storage options, feasibility studies, and rigorous economic modelling. Looking ahead, prioritising investments in AI education and training programs will empower individuals with the necessary expertise. Tailored AI-centric courses at universities and technical institutions will cultivate a new generation of professionals capable of driving the country's energy transition. Furthermore, strategic partnerships with global tech giants like Microsoft will improve digital accessibility and foster inclusive growth.

The current loadshedding crisis demands swift and innovative solutions, while also serving as a catalyst for long-term transformation. Embracing AI is not just an option; it is a necessity to propel our nation towards a future where energy crises are mere relics of the past.

Wrenelle Stander is the chief executive officer at Wesgro, the Official Tourism, Trade and Investment Promotion Agency for Cape Town and the Western Cape.

NOTE: This op-ed was first published by Business Day.