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

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Thembani Bukula, Energy Regulator for South Africa explains why the use of IEC International Standards and participation in IEC work allows countries to ensure that investment in national electrical infrastructure is secure, reliable, safe and affordable.

 

Interview

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

You are a member of the IEC Council Board; what motivates you to invest your personal time in the IEC?

Bukula: I am responsible for electricity regulation in South Africa and standards are an important part of my job. They provide a body of knowledge that is important 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.

Standards contain a pool of knowledge and experience and by being part of the IEC you can re-cultivate your own pool of knowledge and you can also tap into the common knowledge of engineers across the whole world.

These days, when we are investing, we are not only looking to have good returns but because we participate in standardization and use International Standards we are no longer limited to investors and suppliers from our own country. We have got the whole world to choose from and that’s how we get the competitiveness we require. As a result, by getting the most competitive price we end up with a relatively affordable product or service.

Why is it important that countries use International Standards rather than national or other standards?

Bukula: The normal drive in any country at first is to go for the lowest price, the lowest priced product and just installing it. In South Africa for instance the government, as part of an improvement of the quality of life decided to install solar water heaters in low income housing. They quickly realized that the approach of selecting the cheapest product was not the right one. Cheap, untested, non-standardized water heaters were difficult to install because they didn’t easily connect, and they didn’t perform as promised by the vendor and some of them even fell of roofs because of issues with installation. As soon as these problems surfaced it became a requirement that all solar heaters must be tested to IEC Standards and can’t be installed without proper certification. In South Africa IEC is largely embedded in the systems we have.

Also, we try to explain to small and medium companies who want to export that they are better off using international standards if they want to make certain that their products don’t remain stuck in their warehouses. We provide them with examples of what happens when they don’t use international standards. We had cases where people got big contracts, exported the 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 and loss of reputation. So we try and show that even if at first production costs may be lower, when they forego buying standardized components and don’t certify their products, but that if they get it wrong they also risk way more than the cost of their unsellable product.

In South Africa in our regulations we specify that when we buy products or services, they must meet IEC standards.

What challenges are you facing in your area of activity?

Bukula: 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. So the first challenge is: how do we maintain and improve it? The second challenge is that we have in the past invested in technologies that were not necessarily the most energy efficient ones. We now have to move to an economy that is much more energy conscious and efficient.

We also need to include more renewable energies and increase our ability to capture power that comes from many different sources. Electric vehicles will be coming on line and 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 require an electrical system that is smart, safe and capable of meeting all these many requirements.

Do regulators influence what kind of energy sources are developed?

Bukula: Yes. We do play a big role in what ultimately gets used or selected as the appropriate technology in the country. Regulators are implementers of policy but they do influence the formulation of that policy. In our case: if you look at the mix of the generation sources that we have and based on the information that we provide to the policy makers about the price parts of these different technologies and their emission levels, we play a role in what resources gets selected. Once the policy is there, we are the ones for example who will look at a strategy for introducing renewables.

You mentioned investments in infrastructure. The World Bank is investing in projects in South Africa. To what extent do they refer to International Standards?

Bukula: In most cases the World Bank specifies that whatever they’re going to be supporting or whatever they’re going to be providing funds for must meet IEC standards.

In the case of South Africa: the utility Eskom recently received a 3,75 billion dollar loan from the World Bank. Part of the specifications was a requirement of Eskom to build power stations that meet a number of IEC standards.

The World Bank will actually enforce this even if you don’t know about the standards. This is embedded in their own investment drive. They want to build something that is safe, where they will able to recover their investment because it will last as long as is should…or is designed in a way that makes it do what it is designed to do.