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It’s all about the data

 “The foundation of science communication is good data. We all speak different languages, but good data can transcend any boundary.” Over the past two years, Dr Rebekah Shirley, Chief Research Officer at Power for All and Visiting Researcher at Strathmore University in Kenya, has built the Platform for Energy Access Knowledge (PEAK) – a novel energy research team and platform forged through powerful industry-academic partnership with a mission to make energy data accessible and useable by Africa’s most critical energy influencers.

ESI Africa caught up with this passionate, vocal scientist from the Caribbean working with a new generation of energy researchers and science communication technology to tackle some of the energy sector’s biggest challenges.

Rebekah, you joined Power for All to address the problem of business-asusual approaches to energy access due to lack of good data. How has this panned out for you?

Since its launch in 2014, Power for All has worked in some of the least electrified countries in Africa – including Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe – and recognised that the lack of awareness about advances and impacts of different technologies was a major impediment to strategic energy decision-making. I came onboard the campaign in 2016 directly after finishing a PhD at the University of California, Berkeley in Energy Resources, with an emphasis on energy science and technologies. I had focused on building tools for power systems planning in data constrained environments and so was keenly interested in data accessibility and science communication to the general public.

This article first appeared in ESI Africa Edition 3, 2018. You can read the full digital magazine here or subscribe here to receive a print copy.

I assembled a team of engineers and researchers spread across the US and Africa to build what we call the Platform for Energy Access Knowledge (PEAK). It’s a first-of-its-kind platform for Africa: part technology and part researchers using creative ways to communicate established science. PEAK helps users draw meaningful insights about energy best practice from unwieldy volumes of data.

While we absolutely acknowledge the information gap, we also believe there is a lot of data that we do have access to, which as a community we are probably not using as effectively as we could. So, that’s the goal of this exercise – to help us truly make use of what we know as a sector. We have had such positive response to the service we are providing thus far, from practitioners, development and government agencies. Last year, for instance, our team published a position that identified five key policies for unlocking decentralised renewable energy markets based on statistical analysis of publicly available data. Engaging local governments with these findings led to concrete commitments in Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and Sierra Leone. I’m excited we are helping turn data into action.

As the global industry faces an energy revolution and focus turns to the 4Ds (Decarbonisation, Decentralisation, Digitalisation, Democratisation) what are you particularly concerned about; why these and what are the potential solutions?

Global trends show a quickly evolving energy sector: the cost of clean, renewable technologies have decreased dramatically in the past decade and in some places have become cost competitive with grid power in price and performance. Decentralised renewable energy generation, efficient DC appliances, demand response technology and ‘behind the meter’ storage options are now allowing customers to produce, store and use electricity onsite more efficiently.

In advanced electricity markets such as California’s this has begun translating into reduced customer purchases from the utility, a decoupling of utility revenues from such sales and a shift in thinking about what it means to be a utility.

However, utilities in low energy access (LEA) countries – let’s say where less than 50% of the rural population has access to electricity – confront a very different set of challenges. They are usually capital and cash constrained, with a relatively low demand base and users who are largely unable to afford the cost of service. Grid extent is often limited, and reliability is often an issue. Consumption levels are usually small and grow slowly, making cost recovery difficult and regulatory institutions tend to be weak.

Given these major political, economic, and social challenges I’d argue that the rapid penetration of decentralised, decarbonised, digitised and democratised technologies actually poses a major opportunity to leapfrog into the future! The traditional vertically-integrated utility model that requires a constant or expanding pool of customers to recover fixed costs, can be completely revolutionised by proven, new-age technologies that are more agile, being easier and faster to deploy.

My concern is that despite this massive opportunity, there is very little conversation to date around the utility of the future for low energy access countries. My goal in leading this type of research with Power for All is to use the best available research to explore how current energy industry trends can be leveraged in such contexts to achieve our goals of universal energy access, reliability, and sustainable finance.

What do you think was the most important stepping stone for you to focus on the energy sector?

I was living in Trinidad and Tobago during the summer of the 2008 economic crisis, having just finished a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science. While the oil boom was good for Trinidad, as an oil and gas producer, many of the other Caribbean islands struggled with the escalating energy prices. It seemed even the most basic activities of our everyday lives were affected by energy market movements, from employment to food, transportation, housing, education and health care. This juxtaposition made me keenly aware of the ramifications of energy security and volatility. I also came to understand first-hand why energy access is key to poverty reduction. So the very next year, I started Berkeley’s Energy and Resources programme to learn what potential renewable technologies held for countries like mine across the world.

Tell us about the current situation in East Africa’s energy sector

I think the region is setting itself apart as a progressive, enabling environment for energy sector development. Just look at the numbers. Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia are Africa’s leading solar lantern and solar home system markets, together accounting for over two-thirds of sales in sub-Saharan Africa. They are also the three countries with the largest number of active minigrid companies. East Africa, including Rwanda and Uganda, performs the best in terms of setting national and rural electrification targets.

That said, East African utility companies themselves do struggle with cost recovery and still operate at major deficit. These deficits are often due to tariff structures, system under-performance and line losses, power theft, bill collection challenges and general maintenance.

Utility deficits across East Africa average $0.10 for every kWh consumed. Often these overages translate into connection costs which are too high, keeping many from grid connectivity. So there is still a long way to go toward financially viable electricity service provision and nationwide energy access.

Should gender matter? What industry changes are needed so that this question becomes irrelevant?

Absolutely gender matters! Mentorship became critically important to me after living in California for almost eight years. Being the lone black graduate student in my programme for many years, and as a black woman at that, I was an extreme minority in environmental sciences. That burden of representation can sit heavily on your shoulders.

Yet, data shows that the brunt of environmental degradation falls largely to women of colour, as does the impact of poor energy access. So women’s perspectives must be part of the planning process, technology design process, and the decision making process. There are smart, talented women in every possible domain – what we often lack is visibility and platform. I think the intentional inclusion of women across all industry sectors is key.

I don’t think the question of gender will ever become irrelevant. We are stepping into an age of technology disruption that will change the face of what we know as services, transport, jobs and the like – so understanding the implications of technology and policy on the many differing facets of society will always be important.

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

I am very hopeful for the future of the African energy market. I think because of the demonstrable success of first movers, and more understanding and knowledge about best-practice policies, and also because of the strong push for increased finance for the energy sector, we are likely to see more utilities ministries, utilities and regulators adopting progressive policies and incentives to open up the energy market. I think we’ll see more countries clearly establishing energy access targets. We’ll see countries open up private markets by eliminating import duties on decentralised energy products or providing other incentives. We’ll see more support for local company and customer finance through loans, grants, and microfinance. We’ll soon see adoption of quality standards for the energy sector across the board. Finally, I think we’ll see a paradigm shift toward more integrated collaborative planning and operations. There is definitely a continent wide movement towards nergy access for all taking place.

Rebekah, at the African Utility Week in May you were awarded the 2018 Outstanding Contribution Award: Young Energy Leader – what does this mean for you?

It was truly an honour to be recognised for the ‘behind-the-scenes’ work my team at Power for All and I do. Research is not often an award highlight, but now more than ever, Africa needs innovators who understand how to make research, data and knowledge relevant to the public and leaders it serves. We have a huge opportunity to collectively address economic growth, climate change, poverty, food security, access to energy, water and healthcare, all of which are imminent and interconnected challenges. Sustainable solutions will require our institutions to deliver rigorous, applied, locally appropriate, interdisciplinary research and true partnership with industry. I am so excited to be working with forward-thinking institutions driving a new age in energy science engagement for the continent. I hope to continue growing this capacity for critical thinking, bringing more African women into research to strengthen the gender voice, and fostering stronger communication and collaboration across the continent. ESI

This Women in Energy feature is sponsored by Lucy Electric

This article first appeared in ESI Africa Edition 3, 2018. You can read the full digital magazine here or subscribe here to receive a print copy.

Babalwa Bungane
Babalwa Bungane is the content producer for ESI Africa - Clarion Events Africa. Babalwa has been writing for the publication for over five years. She also contributes to sister publications; Smart Energy International and Power Engineering International. Babalwa is a social media enthusiast.