“I have always had a passion to return to academia where I can focus on applied research on real-life problems that will benefit the whole country,” says Christo Nicholls, the holder of the new Stellenbosch University Utility Solutions Research Chair (SUN-USRC) sponsored by Macrocomm.
The new Chair will focus on research in the fields of smart metering, big-data analytics, internet-of-things technologies, low-power wide-area networks, smart capacity building, hosted software solutions and utility performance forecasting. The Chair will also form partnerships with the other research and funding institutions in the general field of utility solutions, engage in specialised consulting activities for industry and pursue other funding streams.
Mr Nicholls is an alumnus of the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering and joins his alma mater after gaining invaluable international experience in the above-mentioned fields.
“After obtaining my BEng in 2001 and a master’s degree in 2008, I decided to first gain some more-utility-focused industry experience,” he continues. “For the past decade I have been intensely involved in technology development of smart meters in the municipal environment. I have worked for the CSIR, Itrón, Macrocomm and had my own consulting firm for a few years. At Itrón (from 2008 until 2013) I was Head of Utility Solutions, and at Macrocomm (from 2017 till now) I was Managing Director of Macrocomm Utilities. I was privileged to gain good international experience during stints in England, France and Brazil.
“Although I received a very attractive job offer to stay and work in Brazil, I decided to return to South Africa, because I have always had a strong desire to help my country. I believe the BEng course at Stellenbosch is structured in such a way that it teaches students to think laterally, which helps them to solve complex problems. After receiving such a solid education at Stellenbosch, I have always felt it my duty to give back.”
On the academic side, Mr Nicholls, who has enrolled for his PhD, lectures Demand Side Management to master’s students. He also supervises a few final-year students as well as a master’s degree student.
Mr Nicholls elaborates: “Where research is concerned, the new Utility Solutions Research Chair will conduct applied research in the African context. The Chair will drive the Smart Municipal Areas Programme which consists of two research streams. The first stream focuses on distribution, supply and services normalisation. This covers innovative debt curtailment, timeous payment of current accounts and alternative means of load shedding. The second stream focuses on the smart consumer experience that will operate on specific data and analytical platforms, such as a mobile app, for reporting municipal issues, requesting municipal bills and handling bill and general query resolutions.
“The Chair is already in partnership with a municipality in the Northern Cape where the two research programmes will be run. This is the first municipality that has chosen Stellenbosch University as its research partner in this field.”
Mr Nicholls concludes: “In the next two or three years, we would like to include more countries in the SADEC region in the programme. Furthermore, the Chair also has the vision to have a strong presence as the preferred Utility Solutions applied-research partner on the African continent.”
Christo Nicholls, the holder of the new Stellenbosch University Utility Solutions Research Chair sponsored by Macrocomm.