Geospatial Applications – An Analysis of the use in Africa’s Electrification Efforts

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Given the broad application scope traversing key business sectors, the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) market has emerged as a determinant of topline growth and operational efficiency.  Experience with GIS to solve business, engineering, environmental, and social problems is a skill that is in demand across all business sectors. According to Research & Markets, the GIS market was valued at USD 7.2 Billion in 2019 and is projected to reach USD 14.5 Billion in 2025, growing at a CARG of 12.4% between 2020 and 2025.

The key drivers to this growth are the development of smart cities and urbanization, the integration of geospatial technology with mainstream technologies for business intelligence, and the growing adoption of GIS solution in the logistics industry. For the forecasted period, GIS software is expected to hold the largest share of growth and adoption, where the location-based services function is expected to grow at the highest rate.


The Middle East and Africa regions represent the least penetration of GIS systems. However, they also have considerable market potential to grow at a higher rate, being led by the adoption of GIS systems in the utility sector.

In recent years, the African utility industry, including power, oil & gas, and telecoms, has rapidly adopted GIS to bring more efficiency to operations and satisfy the surging demand for energy and communication along with the need for extensive and reliable energy infrastructure. As part of the Sustainable Development Goals, both the private and public sectors are collaborating to expand the infrastructure and upgrade the technology used in energy provision.

GIS systems have been integrated at various levels of power provision in Africa. At the same time, public administrations, the non-governmental community and private sector players have embarked on capacity development initiatives that have seen a significant increase in the number of personnel with GIS / Earth Observation skills spanning various applications and use. In West Africa, the ECOWAS Regional Centre for Renewable Energy & Efficiency (ECREEE) has been active in GIS training for Energy Planning since 2016. On the other hand, USA incorporated, ESRI, has extended operations to at least 27 countries in Africa, offering GIS software, web GIS and geo-database management applications. The firm partners with public utility companies, including Eskom SouthAfrica, and private companies in the sector to use GIS mapping tools. To cultivate its reach in Africa, ESRI signed a joint venture agreement with AfroChampions in late September to engage leaders in business, governments, and other regional economic communities in potential partnership building that will result in more use and application of geospatial technology and solutions across the continent.

In the sector, players like ESRI have found value in all levels of energy provision. These include the planning aspect – continental scaling to provide a case for grid extension and renewable energy uses, national electrification planning, site analysis & system design, and the monitoring aspect – automation of processes to incorporate various aspects of asset management, outage management, and regulatory compliance.


Continental Level

GIS technology effects can be felt at the continental scale. In its initial estimates, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) used a GIS approach to make initial estimates of Africa’s renewable energy potential. IRENA reported that GIS analysis showed that eastern and northern Africa have the most potential for solar and wind applications. At the same time, the equatorial region offers the most significant potential for biofuel resources, stated the 2014 report. Owing to these systems, it has also been established that out of the 618 million people who lack access to electricity in Africa, only 33% can be served by national grid extensions. The conclusion is justified by factors such as the proximity to existing grid systems, including grid capacity, the population density, and the levelized cost of production over the long term.

National Level

At the national level, information management systems have given policymakers and planning agencies the foresight to plan and manage energy resources. With GIS technology and mapping, these players are working to determine the right location for grid extension, and in the case of an impossibility, decide which type of renewable energy can be adopted, and therefore inform the types of partnerships to prioritize. This is because GIS allows for in-depth analysis of hydro, wind, and solar potentials while considering factors like distance to the grid, cities, population size & distribution, and type of land cover. At this level of planning, GIS software considers two types of information for input. This includes physical factors – solar irradiance, topography (elevations, islands), and demography & infrastructure – population maps, grid extension and reliability, road networks, and other designated infrastructure such as schools, and medical facilities. Once processed, the output generates a country report outlining the areas for grid extension and off-grid electrification.

By combining the geospatial layers collected, a levelized cost of electricity is calculated for different regions on a map and for other electrification technology choices. These include grid extension and various off-grid generation technologies, such as hydro, solar or biomass, as well as OGS products. Simpler models are based on broad assumptions around population, distance to grid and topography, while more advanced models use an algorithm that analyzes scenarios and picks one with the lowest overall levelized cost. Parameters can be set regarding estimated population growth, energy demand (and growth) and political priorities.

At this level, least-cost electrification maps only offer a rough area plan not granular enough to provide actionable business intelligence. However, off-grid players use these maps to identify regions for potential business opportunities that may merit further investigation.


Off-Grid Site Analysis & Design of Energy Technology

In off-grid power development, initial site identification and analysis is based on Earth Observation/satellite imagery data which ranks the most suitable site based on the remote analysis of socio-economic surveys.

Source: Village Data Site Analysis

The imagery used includes data layers such as the total area under consideration, the number of households to be served, road network, and accessibility. Satellite imagery is becoming more widely available due to the existence of publicly funded satellites from NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), as well as the growing number of satellite constellations operated by private companies. ETF Energy has been a significant player in site identification services through its custom earth observation and AI-powered software, Village Data Analytics, which is powered by ESA. Governments and Development finance institutions are continuously shortlisting sites to feed into tender processes for large scale off-grid solution development. In such cases, they identify sites that offer the best chance for off-grid development and announce tenders for local players to participate. Similarly, investors are using the analysis to support due diligence processes and measure the impact. In sophisticated cases, GIS can inform planners the social and environmental effects, such as if habitats or migratory patterns would be harmed from the building of a specific type of renewable energy plant in that location.

After a suitable site is determined, design software creates technical layouts for consideration. The design software requires data about the site and its potential consumers. This information is usually collected during the site identification process and is reinforced by additional, specific on-site surveys. If the surveys reveal constraints, building footprints can be extracted from satellites and drone imagery. A few companies have come up to offer mapping services. Such include Humanitarian OpenStreetMap, which provides digitally mapped areas covering Eastern Africa. A similar player in the market is Development Maps, which developed a house mapping technology for its in-house use, but demand saw it extend the product to the general market.  With GIS tools incorporation, Energy players at these levels can scale their operations to the desired capability, save on costs, and manage their investment risks.


Management of Energy Assets:

Due to the nature of energy assets, utility companies have struggled to manage these assets given the spread of physical networks over vast territories and in different weather conditions. African nations record the highest levels of grid-unreliability globally, at 43% reliability index out of the total electricity provision in sub-Sahara Africa. According to Growth For Energy, African firms lose approximately 5% of the value of their annual revenues to electrical outages. Such unmitigated outages cost range from USD 2 – 32 kWh depending on the firm’s vulnerability to power interruptions.

Eskom Uses ArcGIS to view downed transmission networks

With the adoption of GIS powered geo-databases such as ESRI’s ArcGIS, utility companies across Africa will be able to monitor and manage their transmission networks. The geo-database stores and manipulates geographic information and spatial data while storing raster data in the form of aerial photographs, and imagery from satellites. It also acts as a critical component for maintaining accurate transmission assets such as substations, lines, and associated structures. By consistently gathering GIS data and insights, utility firms can forecast outages, their locations, and the impact of such outages. They can also assess the grid-reliability and improve the management of transmission corridors, and analyze load growth and changes in load shape or strain on substation capacities.

South Africa, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria are just a number of the African countries where power theft (illegal connectivity) have become a crisis. In Kenya, the public utility company, KPLC, has had to impose security measures to curb the theft and vandalism of electricity infrastructure. GIS applications could aid in surveillance by providing insights to the security levels in various regions by analyzing power systems related / public infrastructure crime rate.


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