Allow interoperability/Secure investment

Thembani Bukula, Regulator Member, NERSA (National Energy Regulator of South Africa)

By Claire Marchand

IEC Global Visions interviewed Thembani Bukula, Regulator Member at NERSA (National Energy Regulator of South Africa). In this interview, he explains why the use of IEC International Standards and participation in IEC work allow countries to ensure that investment in national electrical infrastructure is secure, reliable, safe and affordable.

Standards: A working tool for regulators

Bukula says that standards play a very important role in his work – he is responsible for electricity regulation in South Africa – as they provide a body of knowledge that is crucial for the design, installation and maintenance of infrastructure. They allow regulators to reduce the cost of electricity supply, making it more reliable, safe and affordable.

IEC brings many benefits

Bukula, who is a member of the IEC Council Board, further explains that being part of the IEC has many benefits, including easy access to the pool of knowledge and experience of engineers across the whole world. Participating in standardization work and using International Standards is also an asset when they plan investments because they are no longer limited to investors and suppliers from their own country. In his own word, they have the world to choose from and, as a result, by getting the most competitive prices, they end up with relatively affordable products or services.

On the importance of using International Standards rather than national ones, Bukula answers with some real-life examples where government agencies or companies ended up losing money because they had opted for the cheapest product and compliance with International Standards had gone unheeded.

Learning the hard way

Bukula remembers one instance where the South African government decided to install solar water heaters in low-income housing as part of an effort to improve the residents’ quality of life. With a view to cutting costs, the cheapest products available were selected but the government soon realized they were mistaken. Cheap, untested, non-standardized water heaters were difficult to install because they didn’t easily connect, didn’t perform as promised by the vendor and some of them even fell off the roofs because of installation flaws. Learning from this experience, the government required that all solar heaters be tested and certified to IEC International Standards.

Be competitive, use International Standards

Bukula says they try to explain to small and medium companies who want to export that they are better off using international standards. To prove his case, Bukula cites companies that obtained important contracts, exported their goods and then just didn’t get the certification in the destination country. They not only had to pay for the products to be shipped there…and back but also for other costs, not to mention the loss of reputation they suffered.

In effect, when companies dispense with buying standardized components and certifying their products to keep costs at a minimum, the consequences may involve much more than they bargained for.

This is why, Bukula says, in South Africa regulations specify that when purchasing products or services, those must meet IEC International Standards.

Challenges in improving the infrastructure

Asked about the challenges he is facing in his line of work, Bukula explains that the electrical infrastructure in most countries, South Africa included, is more than 50 years old and, in some cases, close to the end of its useful life as far as design specifications are concerned.

The first challenge is how to maintain and improve it. The second comes from the fact that, in the past, the technologies they invested in were not necessarily the most energy-efficient ones. The need is now to move to an economy that is much more energy-conscious and efficient.

Bukula adds that it is also essential to include more renewable energies and increase the ability to capture power generated from many different sources. As an example, he mentions electric vehicles: they will need to be charged but can also become a power source when they are parked. Overall there is a convergence of many different technologies that will necessitate an electrical system that is smart, safe and capable of meeting all these many requirements.

Bukula confirms that regulators play a big role in what ultimately gets used or selected as the appropriate technology in the country. They are implementers of policy but they also influence the formulation of that policy. Additionally, once the policy is in place, they are the ones who look at a strategy for introducing renewables.

World Bank investment

For South Africa, as for many other countries, another incentive to use International Standards comes from the World Bank. The projects they support and fund must meet IEC International Standards.

Bukula cites the case of the South African utility Eskom, which recently received a USD 3,75 billion loan from the World Bank. Project specifications required Eskom to build power stations that meet a number of IEC International Standards.

Bukula adds that the World Bank will enforce this clause even if the beneficiary knows nothing about the standards. Their goal is to build something that is well designed, safe and durable that will at the same time allow them to recoup their investment.