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Women in Energy | Fusing of industrial and energy markets

With over 22 years in the energy sector, the East African Community Secretariat’s senior industrial engineer was mentored by some of the industry’s key engineers. Now as a mentor to young professionals herself, Eng Jennifer A. Gache née Nyambala is actively engaged in driving market development.

This article first appeared in ESI-Africa Edition 1, 2019. You can read the magazine’s articles here or subscribe here to receive a print copy. This ‘Women in Energy’ feature is sponsored by Lucy Electric

With a primary goal of promoting industrialisation in EAC countries, Jennifer facilitates harmonising policies, strategies and related programmes using her mechanical engineering honours degree.

Jennifer, where did your extensive career start out?

I started my energy career in 1998 as a graduate trainee at the Kenya Power and Lighting Company Limited where I trained in distribution lines, substations and other services like the automotive repair shop, central construction unit, electrical plant, purchasing, finance, transport and customer service. I was also trained on off-grid technologies, geothermal, hydropower when I worked at Lamu Isolated Power Station; Olkaria Geothermal Power Station; Kipevu Power Plant; Turkwel Power Plant; and the Seven Forks Hydro Stations.

After my training, I settled in the Corporate and Strategy Division of the Kenya Electricity Company where I worked as an energy planning engineer, responsible for proactively planning and updating supply and demand forecasts for Kenya and the region, conceptualising the capital pipeline and driving the strategic aspects of the planning cycles for the company.

That is an interesting journey. What assignments do you vividly recall?

My first assignment was quite interesting as I was assigned to undertake operation and maintenance of the Lamu thermal off grid plant in the beautiful island of Lamu at a time when there were floods in Kenya and all the roads were impassible. We were forced to transport fuel using an airplane in oil drums. This led to a bit of pollution as the oil drum left traces of dirt during transportation in boats and there was quite a bit of load shedding at the time as supplies were not very consistent.

The power generated was also expensive but the government had to charge the same tariff as the main grid due to the energy policy. This experience reinforced in my mind the benefits of renewable energy solutions like solar and wind but at that time (in the nineties) they were not cost-effective.

Another assignment that is etched in my mind is the work on wind development in Kenya. In May 2008, the Ministry of Energy commissioned a wind atlas under a regional project; the Solar and Wind Energy Resource Assessment Project (SWERA). Led by UNEP/DTIE and funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) with local in-kind contributions by Practical Action and the Ministry of Energy, Kenya, the project was conducted through very close collaboration between European lead agencies. Using this atlas I was able to identify 12 greenfield sites distributed all over Kenya.

Who were your mentors and how did they inspire you?

I have had a broad section of mentors. Early on in my life, I engaged with the international network of Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Through this network, I have been able to see women achieve great things in their careers and business. This encouraged me to push on in a male-dominated field. In Kenya, before joining the regional sphere, I was also an active member of the Institution of Engineers in Kenya, enabling me to engage with so many engineers.

I have been privileged to work with a good number of senior engineers in my career who mentored me including: Engineers Albert Mugo, Laban Kariuki, James Wahogo, Julius Riungu, Jasper Oduor, David Mwangi, and Francis Makhanu, among others. It is their guidance that enabled me to expand my skills and knowledge, gain valuable insights into the energy profession and advance my career.

In giving back, I am now a mentor to a number of young people guiding them in understanding that there are opportunities in the engineering and energy fields. I particularly enjoy mentoring young girls interested in STEM to encourage them that it is possible to succeed in a male-dominated workspace and the work is just like any other profession.

Should gender matter?

Gender must remain a key agenda on the table. A number of countries and regions are asking the right questions and changing legislation to ensure that women get a seat at the high table.

The energy sector is a capital intensive sector; as such you find that women are marginalised especially when it comes to ownership of mega projects and also in the political arena around energy.

Women form slightly more than 50% of the population and are key handlers of energy in the households. As such the effects of the non-availability of costly energy hits them the most. The decisions and policies regarding energy directly impacts them. In areas like Africa, where access to energy has improved, women become the biggest beneficiaries.

What is your take on the trending 3D topic?

This concept has arrived with such force that it cannot be stopped—driven by the 4th Industrial Revolution. Since the advent of the internet, everything has been online and this has brought about such a disruption that some technologies have become obsolete.

Digitisation has led to a higher dependency on energy as infrastructure for the systems and may lead to the eventual growth of distributed power.

This has also driven the development of renewable energy systems, especially where there is no access to national grids. In order to achieve higher access to energy it will be critical for governments to develop mini-grids in areas where it is not economical to extend national grids.

The global drive towards sustainability caused by renewable energy serves to give impetus to decentralisation and is a boost to decarbonisation. However, most governments are caught up in linear thinking and certainly have reservations when it comes to developing and changing policies.

The internet will permeate the energy world and the inability to embrace the disruption will lead to current systems going down as older solutions become obsolete. There is a need for the winners of yesterday to partner with the winners of tomorrow to ride through the wave of change. These three emerging topics are opportunities for innovators to provide affordable, reliable, environmentally friendly, digitised, decarbonised and decentralised energy systems.

What are your top predictions for the energy market in the next five years?

• The cost of renewable energy technologies will continue dropping as mass production takes place and more people embrace these technologies for sustainability.

• More households will be able to generate their own electricity and power it to the grid; these could also be at the level of cities, towns or region in the form of mini-grids.

• There will be more global investments in renewable energy with large interconnection sufficient to power industrial growth.

• Renewable energy technologies are set to disrupt long-term standing business models as major technological companies like Google, Amazon and Walmart enter the market to satisfy their energy needs, and reduce dependence on traditional grids. ESI

This article first appeared in ESI-Africa Edition 1, 2019. You can read the magazine’s articles here or subscribe here to receive a print copy. This ‘Women in Energy’ feature is sponsored by Lucy Electric