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How to keep the lights on

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Kathy Gibson reports from the Oracle CIO Summit in Sandton – South African companies can expect to be plunged into darkness for several hours every week for the next few years, and companies have a responsibility to stay in business.

CIOs need to find ways to keep the IT services running even when the lights go out.

Dave Benston, from the Department of International Relations and Co-operation, tells a round table discussion at the Oracle CIO Summit that Eskom currently supplies about 95% of the power consumed in South Africa and as much as 45% of Africa’s total.

With less than one-third of Africans currently with access to electricity there is a massive shortfall in generation on the continent, a situation that South African companies have to deal with now.

“So what can be done to try to overcome this?” Benston asks.

One possible solution lies in hydro-electric power, and the Congo is developing a number of power plants that will use that’s country’s abundant water to produce electricity.

Geo-thermal power is another solution, and countries lying along the Great Rift Valley in East Africa could use these resources.

Nuclear is an option, although South Africa’s Koeberg is the only operational commercial nuclear power station on the continent.

But Benston points out that there are other, less traditional ways of providing electricity – and there are a number of pilot programmes underway in South Africa.

For instance, there are wind generating farms being set up on the south coast. The only problem with wind turbines is that they only work when the wind is blowing.

Photo-voltaic, or solar, power is a popular option and there is already a big solar farm operating in the Karoo. Another way to use the sun is through indirect solar generation, using mirrors to heat water to create steam and drive turbines.

“But there is no doubt there is a big shortfall of power availability,” Benston says. “Countries are no generating enough in building generating plants in Africa.”

Other countries are finding new and innovative ways of producing electricity. For instance, the Australians have put into operation a wave-powered generator where they use floats in the water to pump water into a reservoir under pressure which can then drive turbines. One shortfall of this method is that it cannot drive big turbines, so multiple turbines have to run in parallel.

South Africa has been blessed with abundant coal supplies – it is estimated that another 300 years’ supply is still available – but other sources of energy are actively being sought.

Some parties believe that fracking in the Karoo, and using that gas to drive turbines could be the answer. Others are resisting that move, citing the danger of contaminating underground water in a water-scarce area.

With a seemingly insurmountable problem, the private sector is being urged to come up with solution to keep their own organisations running.

Among the suggestions that has been put forward is that companies could mount solar panels on their roofs to power not only their own offices, but the traffic lights around their offices as well to help keep traffic flowing.

Some doubts were raised about the viability of private companies plugging the gap in electricity generation since this could result in complacency from the power provider and hamstring long-term efforts to correct the electricity situation in the country.

A parallel was drawn with Nigeria, where almost every country produces its own electricity via generators, with the result that the power utility has made no attempt to provide them with a more reliable electricity supply.
While many office systems are affected by power cuts, mobile devices can generally operate for some hours without a direct power source, and there is an expectation that mobile apps may become more relevant as a result.