A consumer-centric approach to engineering

Spotlight on Sarisha Ojageer

Sarisha, why did you choose to work in the energy sector? Can you tell us more about your journey into the field?

My interest in energy developed when I was in school. When I first started learning about sustainable development, I knew that I had found what I wanted to ultimately contribute towards. I began by getting involved, together with my family, by starting small and recycling at home, composting vegetable scraps, installing a solar geyser, etc. My interests expanded into environmental engineering and renewable energy as I began university. I was initially torn between electrical and electronic engineering, but I eventually decided to follow the electronics route. After completing my undergraduate degree and achieving the “Best Student in Electronic Engineering” award, I pursued a Master of Science degree in electronic engineering which focused on the production of graphene for the fabrication of graphene fibres.

While I maintain an appreciation for academia, I also wanted to enter the energy industry to broaden my knowledge. This prompted me to seek opportunities within the Electricity Unit of eThekwini Municipality, the electrical distributor of the entire eThekwini region. By pursuing this, I not only started my career as an engineer within the Medium and Low Voltage (MV/LV) Network Control but also knew I was working towards improving my community.

Last year I discovered the Open Africa Power (OAP) initiative, a capacity building program for young African graduates and professionals aiming to enhance the technical, regulatory and business skills required to work within the energy sector, with a greater focus on the electrification of Africa.

OAP opened my eyes to the full extent of the energy sector as well as to the technologies available to provide and improve electricity access to all. As a part of the OAP initiative, I completed the Regulation for Universal Access to Energy online course at the Florence School of Regulation (FSR). This opportunity widened my network and was how I first learned of the FSR Lights on Women initiative!

What are your main responsibilities at the Medium and Low Voltage (MV/LV) Network Control at eThekwini Municipality?

The primary function of eThekwini Electricity is the distribution of electricity from 275 kV bulk infeed points from Eskom Transmission to industrial, commercial and domestic customers in its area of supply. Network Control is responsible for maintaining the electrical network to ensure service delivery and the interface between the customer’s first point of contact with the business and the field staff and is therefore instrumental to the service delivery value chain.

My role as an engineer within Network Control is to ensure customer service delivery and quality of supply through novel research and design, as well as process optimisation and innovation. We are responsible for maintaining and improving the network management systems and for analysing system performance and power quality.

Service delivery is paramount as we are accountable to the National Energy Regulator of South Africa and to the customers. We are currently enhancing our network visibility through the Distribution Automation project.

Can you share some insights on the Distribution Automation Project?

We have an extensive distribution network that spans our area of supply. This network is continuously changing and expanding as new applications are received and electrification efforts are implemented. Our demand base already exceeds 730 000 customers, therefore there is a growing need for visibility of the network to ensure reliability and quality of supply. This need culminated in the Distribution Automation Project.

Distribution automation entails the use of various technologies and protocols to provide remote monitoring and operation of the electrical distribution network. The project facilitates outage restoration, fault location and load flow analysis through the use of intelligent electronic devices, remote terminal units (RTUs) and internet protocol modems. Our Supervisory, Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system enables an interconnected network model to be formed from which system operations can be performed by continuously monitoring field data.

The project entails the migrating a number of our substations to our private fibre communication network to improve the availability of the communications link to the RTU and to respond more timeously to faults across the value chain. We are also extending the remote visibility to the low voltage network to improve the Controller’s response to faults and outages. In addition, we are currently conducting a field audit of the various equipment on-site to populate our database and feed into our maintenance schedules in order to ultimately improve service delivery. The Distribution Automation Project will also greatly assist in preparing the network for the influx of embedded generation at the distribution level.

The Distribution Automation project has facilitated the influx of very large volumes of data from the field. Our SCADA system is used to graphically display data such as the voltage level and loads at our substations from the transmission to the distribution level. However, it is easy for important information to be overlooked amidst this sea of data. Hence, the engineering team at the branch has embarked on the in-house development of dashboards for our control rooms. These dashboards display urgent requests that require attention to ensure that hazardous situations are attended to first. By developing a platform to monitor the communication to our field devices we can identify sites where the communication link is poor and facilitate troubleshooting to improve availability.

What drives you in your career? Is there a particular reason why you chose to work for the municipality?

My first influence was my family, which was very community-oriented. From a young age, I saw how everyone has a role to play in making the cogs turn in any system, whether it is at home or an entire industry. Later, in university, a course on Human Centred Design really opened my eyes to what I wanted to achieve through my career. I used to think engineering was very technical, analytical and structured, but, after exploring the concept of design in the context of communities or various environments, it became clear to me that engineering is to improve, to solve problems…to help. This is where my passion lay: to contribute and to give back.

I want to help my community and my environment through the work I do by adopting a consumer-centric approach to engineering. What attracted me to work for the municipality is that every employee is, directly or indirectly, a provider of an essential service. At eThekwini Electricity we distribute electricity to our customers. And those customers are our families, our friends, our communities.

I want to help my community and my environment through the work I do by adopting a consumer-centric approach to engineering. What attracted me to work for the municipality is that every employee is, directly or indirectly, a provider of an essential service. At eThekwini Electricity we distribute electricity to our customers. And those customers are our families, our friends, our communities.
Sarisha Ojageer

I have been fortunate to be raised in a home where I had luxuries that many people in South Africa and in the greater continent do not have, such as reliable and affordable electricity, water and sanitation facilities, opportunities to pursue tertiary education and a solid family structure. Being a part of the bigger picture and knowing that what I do each day contributes to improving the lives of others is a huge motivating factor in my personal and professional life.

What does the future of South Africa’s energy sector hold? What are the key issues and challenges that must be addressed promptly?

South Africa’s primary generator of electricity, Eskom, has recently announced plans to implement rotational load shedding until March 2019.

This is necessary due to a shortage of fuel reserves and the generation plants being under maintenance because of faults, resulting in low plant availability. The current situation highlights the pitfalls of a monopolistic energy industry as well as the need for alternative sources of energy.

Fortunately, South Africa is taking steps to improve the energy mix by unbundling the electricity sector to some extent. This is evident in the revised Integrated Resource Plan (IRP). The IRP entails an improved energy mix for South Africa and offers increasingly fertile land for Independent Power Producers (IPPs). The Minister of Energy recently signed several contracts with Independent Power Producers this year, which has committed 6422 MW of renewable energy generation capacity to the national grid by the year 2030. Currently, energy generation is primarily provided by thermal power stations (~91%), however, with this additional renewable energy capacity and the decommissioning of coal plants in the future, the contribution of thermal-derived power will steadily decrease.

This process of liberalisation experienced significant delays because of coal miner protests, political interference and corruption. Resistance is to be expected, but I think that the introduction of IPPs to the sector is a step in the right direction. Since Eskom is the only off-taker of this additional generation capacity, a bottleneck is created which, hopefully, may be relieved in the future with further unbundling of the distribution and transmission sectors.

Also, the Electricity Act has been revised to regulate the independent generation of electricity over 1 MW and we are now seeing the private sector embarking on small, primarily solar photovoltaic rooftop installations. This is introducing sources of generation at the Distribution Level. This rapid adoption of renewable energy in the form of small-scale embedded generation has prompted the sector to explore the effects that this will have on the network and the resulting changing business models for electricity utilities and private industries alike.

Other challenges that South Africa must address in the near future include access to electricity, vandalism and theft of electricity infrastructure, climate change, corruption and mismanagement of funds.

Among these, do you recognise any global challenges? In your opinion, what are the most crucial steps to tackle them?

I think that most of the challenges I have mentioned are in fact global challenges. The first challenge is that energy is often a monopoly and this distortion may be addressed through the unbundling of the sector and should be bolstered by sound regulation. This ties in with political interference and corruption, which is a common problem for many African countries. Addressing this requires an impartial and transparent judicial system which enacts effective law enforcement, the strengthening of finance management through the enhanced inclusion of auditing agencies, promoting transparency and access to information. We also need to empower people at all levels so that the voters are more discerning and willing to hold governmental agencies accountable.

The unbundling of the energy sector and the introduction of embedded generation present new challenges of reinforcing the network. This may be overcome by adopting best practices from countries that have successfully incorporated distributed generation and IPPs into their networks. Collaboration with local universities for simulation studies would also be an excellent, mutually beneficial, capacity building endeavour.

Another widespread challenge is access to electricity. This challenge is closely linked to theft and vandalism of electricity infrastructure. I think that by improving the inclusion of renewable energy solutions to provide access to remote areas would simultaneously tackle the lack of electricity access and contribute to climate change mitigation efforts. Since these issues are socio-economic in nature, we need to engage with communities and acknowledge their needs as well as to improve the understanding of the benefits of a legal connection. In countries where universal access has not been achieved, due to a lack of generation capacity or infrastructure, organisations such as Africa GreenCo could provide the solution by improving access to international funding.

Lastly, another global challenge is climate change. We need more initiatives such as OAP to enhance and grow the skills required to adopt renewable energy technologies. There is the need for higher awareness of funding opportunities for renewable energy projects. Municipalities and electricity retailers need to restructure tariffs and business models to encourage the adoption of solar photovoltaic home installations. Energy generation may be one of the largest contributors to the production of greenhouse gases, but waste is a growing problem as well. Countries such as Singapore and Sweden have implemented waste-to-energy facilities which simultaneously provide energy and reduce waste. Such initiatives may help to significantly mitigate these problems. I think we are well aware of these actions but we truly need to adopt a sustainable-living mindset. These principles need to be included in school syllabi, reinforced in tertiary institutions and put into practice, both at home and in the workplace. If we can achieve this, I think that we will have an improved appropriation of resources and we will sensitise the individual to this global objective.

As a female engineer working in the energy sector in South Africa, what insights can you give other women trying to break into the field?

Entering the energy sector in South Africa is a daunting task. It is traditionally a male-dominated field and while the landscape is slowly changing, this continues to be evident at technical forums where female representation is very low.

EThekwini Municipality is embarking on a number of gender mainstreaming initiatives, in line with the Employment Equity Act, which aims to increase the representation of women and people with disabilities in the municipality. The Electricity Unit has been particularly successful by undertaking a multi-pronged approach to attract women to the sector. At the Recruitment Level, this involves initiatives such as offering bursaries to engineering students, providing learner technician training, and offering an accredited apprenticeship. The Development Level entails training for Candidate Engineers that is accredited with the Engineering Council of South Africa, providing opportunities for Continuous Professional Development and involvement in national workgroups. Finally, the Retention Strategy involves the introduction of progression within positions and the provision of a Scarce Skills Allowance. These initiatives resulted in the increased representation of females by 8%, 13% and 10% at the Artisan, Technician and Engineer levels respectively, from 2008 to 2018. Although women continue to be underrepresented at the various levels, the organisation is slowly moving in the right direction.

Another initiative with which I have recently been involved in is the Women in Electricity program. The program (inspired by an initiative at the Association of Municipal Electricity Utilities) is in its infancy but aims to enable the advancement of women in the electricity sector. A panel of my female colleagues and I are currently working on solidifying objectives and preparing an action plan to start the new year on the right foot.

While such women empowerment programs exist, I feel that we, as women, tend to disempower ourselves because of fear and apprehension.

What I have learnt is that you should never be afraid to ask questions: this shows interest, not ignorance. Also, never stop learning. This learning may take the form of reading and researching, asking colleagues questions, arranging training, and so forth. Opportunities exist at every corner and we are responsible for taking the initiative to pursue them. By doing this, we grow our competencies as well as our confidence.

Connect with Sarisha on LinkedIn


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