X wearevuka.com

ELECTRIC MOBILITY: “What will happen if 250 000 electric minibus taxis start to charge at exactly the same time?”

Exclusive interview with Prof. Thinus Booysen: Research Chair in Internet of Things | Engineering, University of Stellenbosch, South Africa. Prof Booysen was a speaker in the inaugural edition of Africa’s Green Economy Summit in February 2023 in Cape Town.

Let’s start with some background on you and your work at the University of Stellenbosch.
My background is really one from industry. I’m an engineer, an electrical electronic engineer by training, and a lot of the work that I’ve done has been in industry: aerospace, automotive and civil aerospace, some in South Africa, some in the UK. Upon my return from the UK, I started working at the university, and the research that we do is very much related to either energy or transport systems. What has happened in the last 5 years or so is that these two have met one another and we moved on to electric mobility, where these two worlds that I operate in have combined. So, I’m officially the Chair of Internet of Things at Stellenbosch University in the Faculty of Engineering.

Any specific projects that you are working on that you are particularly excited about? How will this change people’s lives?

At the moment, the crux of what we’re looking at is electric mobility. And maybe it’s also good to just highlight that electric mobility for me is a better moniker than electric vehicles or anything else for that matter that relates to electric vehicles and the charging of electric vehicles. I’m firmly of the belief that with the advent of electric mobility, we can’t really just look at the vehicles anymore, we can’t just look at the electricity network and we can’t just look at the road infrastructure. All of these are combined now. So, at the moment, something that we’re working on is this electric mobility system and trying to prepare South Africa, which tends to lag a few years when you compare it to Europe and America and China actually at the moment. We’re trying to prepare for the onset of electric mobility in South Africa and in sub-Saharan Africa.

So some of the projects that we’re looking at that really gets me excited is we’ve done a retrofit vehicle. We’ve taken a 2009 model year minibus taxi, and we’ve retrofitted this vehicle with an electric propulsion with our partners, Rham Equipment, and with funding from SANEDI. And this thing is operating now, and next week, it will be showcased to Minister Blade Nzimande and Minister Gwede Mantashe at the SANEDI conference. So this is something that hugely excites me.

The reason why we’re working on this minibus taxi project is the majority of people in South Africa that own cars won’t realise this, but approximately 70% of people in the country and in the regions of sub-Saharan Africa are moved using other minibus taxis or what we term paratransit. It’s also called artisanal transport. It’s basically the informal transport system that we have. So, that’s one thing that we focus on.

Another project that really excites me is the one that we’re looking at vehicle to grid applications: using the vehicles in a system where you charge back into the infrastructure to sustain the grid and to shift peaks on the grid. So that’s a nice one we’re working on.

Another interesting one we’re working with Golden Arrow Buses is to look at vehicle scheduling. With the advent of electric mobility again, one big issue is: can the vehicles operate in the same way and deliver the same function as you would for normal combustion engines? And the scheduling is already complex. If you consider things like bus scheduling, how do you get the right number of buses to deliver the right number of supply for the right number of demand? And now with electric mobility, where you have limited range and elongated charging periods, the question is, how do you schedule that? So we’ve developed an automated scheduler to work on that.

Another project that we’re working on that’s quite interesting is also just looking at the grid impact. So assessing what will happen if the approximately 250,000 minibus taxis in the country start to charge at exactly the same time, during morning and evening peaks, and to what extent we can offset that with solar supply. So we’ve got quite a few projects just looking at that. And we’re also building a small vehicle, a brand new little pickup vehicle with electric mobility that I’m quite excited about.

In the broader scheme of things, the type of work that we’re doing on electric mobility relates to:
1) the vehicle, looking at which mobility vehicles we can use in the African context, because our context is unique, different and challenging in many different ways than you would expect in a developed country.

2) We also look at the infrastructure needs. Our infrastructure is obviously more constrained than the majority of other electrical networks in the world, but we have an abundance of solar. So we are looking at ways to augment with solar and then also to bringing battery energy storage to act as a buffer between the vehicle and the infrastructure.

3) The third component that we’re looking at is operations: How do you get these vehicles to perform the task that they need to do? And how do you ensure that the whole system can cope with the needs?

What can governments be doing with regards to enabling green economy investment and project development?
I think there is a lot that governments could be doing and this is what drives me to a large extent. I think electric mobility brings a lot of opportunity and also a lot of challenges. And what government can do is be prepared. And I hate to say this, but I don’t think our government is or has been a pinnacle of success in terms of planning for transitions. So, what government can do in terms of the vehicles for electric mobility is to very seriously and carefully plan for local production. I think one of the big challenges we have in this country is obviously the electrical network, big challenge, but then also we have the challenge of joblessness and people who are losing hope because they can’t find work. And almost 500,000 jobs in this country rely directly or indirectly on the vehicle production sector. And this vehicle production sector is located in the poorest of our communities. It’s in Eastern Cape around the areas with the highest unemployment.

What government needs to seriously do is to consider how they will transition to the electric mobility challenge. Specifically also because the majority of our vehicles that we produce in this country are actually exported to Europe and to other countries as well. But those jobs will go away and we will lose those production facilities and the export opportunity if we are not ahead of the curve and if we don’t convert to electric mobility there.

The other thing that government can definitely do right now is to start planning for when these electric vehicles will start charging. So you’re all familiar with water heaters. Water heaters are a very big challenge for the electrical grid because they heat up in the mornings and in the evenings causing these peak grid loads or demands on our electrical infrastructure. What is really scary is that those peaks will almost perfectly coincide with the charging of electric vehicles. And it won’t take many electric vehicles to break our grid, even if our grid were operational, which it’s not: we’re hovering between 40–50% of grid capacity being substantially less than what we what we should be running at. But electric vehicles will challenge that even further. And there are ways to mitigate it. The ways to mitigate it are to implement charging facilities that are off-grid, to create legislation that ensures that people don’t charge at the wrong times, or even put in controls like scheduled charging to ensure that people don’t charge their vehicles during peak times, which will be detrimental to all of us, and it will be detrimental to the economy.

Obviously, another thing that government can do at this point is to use this transition to electric mobility as a pivot opportunity to restructure and reform the informal transport sector. What I mean by this is I think we’re all aware that there are many challenges related to minibus taxis and the way that these drivers behave, the way that the whole system operates, it is not necessarily beneficial to those that it purports to serve. And this electric mobility brings about an opportunity to reregulate, and I don’t mean that in a bad way at all, reregulate the sector so that we can provide a better service to the poor. Things like tracking passenger occupancy in vehicles. Just to see how occupied these vehicles are. Trying to improve the safety of these vehicles by including driving behaviour systems in the electric vehicles. Just to give you an example, in Brazil, they have legislated that every single vehicle that’s sold must have a tracker because they had so many thefts of new vehicles that they brought in this legislation. Now we can do the same thing. If government says every single new taxi that is sold must have a tracker that does driver behaviour monitoring and that maybe, as the blue dot system did, reward the drivers and the owners for driving well, then we can transform the whole system. And we’ve actually run experiments that do that. So, I think there are many opportunities.

I just want add one more thing here. The big thing that I think government is doing poorly is our education system. It’s all well and good to say we’re going to create job opportunities, but if we don’t have the skill sets available, then those job opportunities don’t help much. We have a big skills deficit in this country, and just in my opinion, it stems from a horrible and broken basic education system, something that’s not working. And I think that’s really where government should focus its attention, to put the emphasis back on people who have the skills, people who have the education to take the country forward and to fill the gaps in economic opportunities. So that’s a very long-winded answer, but that is my answer.

November is Africa Youth Month. How can the continent’s youth be made to feel part of the green economy future in your view?
I think I’ve touched on this to a large extent in my previous answer, but let me say this, I think our survival as humanity and global survival deeply depends on the green economy working. And I don’t mean working in a way that makes a few people rich. I mean working in a way that actually reduces the risk of climate change and mitigates the risk of climate change. The green economy for me is a very important piece of the puzzle that ensures our survival. And if you just park that for one second, another thing that I think is a crucial building block that ensures our survival in sub-Saharan Africa, in Africa, in South Africa as well, is that we have to create employment and we have to create the skills. And for me, it’s a no-brainer that all attention should be put into creating the skills that services and enables this economy, which will ensure that all of us survive.

So, I think the youth, at least from my perspective, is in a dire position in terms of skills and in terms of opportunities. And I think what this month allows us to do is to just create awareness again of what the opportunities out there are. Just as an example again, our engineers don’t struggle to find jobs when they walk out of university because they have the skill set to be employed. And I think that’s the opportunity that should be leveraged here. Give the youth hope through providing them basic education and providing them skills so they can service the country in the green economy.

You obviously love what you do, what keeps you excited about this sector?
Do I love what I do? This is mostly the case. It is also daunting and I don’t sleep much, but yes, what keeps me excited about electric mobility is that for me, this is a pivoting opportunity. This is an opportunity to overcome a lot of challenges. And what I have found very exciting and what keeps me going is in the academic sector, you have this unique position where people kind of still trust you. You’re not in it to make money, you’re not in it for political gain. You’re in a unique position where you can create a platform where industry partners and government can come together and collaborate and listen to you and trust you and build the networks that ensures that we work together. So, what makes me excited is we’re in a position where we can actually make a change, and we can drive change and we can inform change.

But let me also say what I love about what I’m doing is being surrounded by passionate young engineers who are so capable. I think they really cast a long shadow over what I’m doing. I have engineering students that’ll blow your mind away with the skill sets and the new ideas that they’re bringing. And it’s difficult not to be excited by that.

Anything you would like to add?
I think it’s important for me to state at this point that we’re setting up this group with a lot of research at Stellenbosch University, but in no way do I think we can do this alone. I think the problems that we face in terms of electric mobility, but also in terms of the country, are so big that we desperately need to get together, work together and pull together. This is a unique opportunity for all of us to work towards a common goal and let the enemy not be the competition in the segment because the segment is huge and there’s a lot of opportunity there. Let the common enemy be the environmental changing or climate changing aspect of what we’re doing. So let’s work against that common enemy. Let’s work towards fighting poverty because that’s a common enemy. And I think that’s really where our passion should sit. Let’s work together. Happy to work with other universities, happy to work with industry partners, government, because I think we can affect real change.

Mar 28, 2024

Green Economy Express – March

Read Full Article

Mar 28, 2024

Financial profit and nature-based economy—family, friends or foes?

Read Full Article