Access to reliable, affordable and clean energy is increasingly recognized as the “golden thread” tying together and enabling many other of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Despite progress over the last decade in making solutions to energy poverty more accessible to the more than 800 million people currently without electricity (and the many more with intermittent or unaffordable energy) many gaps remain critical to fill — particularly as the COVID-19 crisis threatens to disrupt the fragile energy supply chains so critical to ensuring vaccines can be stored and delivered safely across the African continent and beyond.
To meet the ambitious SDG7 goal of universal electricity by 2030 — as well as addressing key applications such as securing the cold chain for the mass distribution of vaccines needed to move past the COVID-19 pandemic — harmonized policies, coordinated investment and innovative research are urgently needed. Equally or even more important, however, are the under-studied and under-supported partnerships that can catalyze and scale these efforts to make SDG7 both a lifeline and a means of economic empowerment and equity.
The Congo Power initiative represents one such innovative coalition approach. Initially launched by Google’s Supplier Responsibility team in 2017 to address energy equity and build resilience at the very beginning of supply chains, the initiative supports communities committed to responsible minerals (namely tungsten, tin, tantalum, gold, cobalt) that are ubiquitous in electronics and tied to conflict and human rights abuses.
Through a collaboration with the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Lab (RAEL) at the University of California, Berkeley, the Congo Power initiative is exploring how innovative energy solutions can improve livelihoods and resilience across communities in East & Central Africa where many of the mineral supply chains that feed technology devices globally have their upstream origins.
Previously funded research has explored the intersection between energy poverty and conflict, the evolution of real-time monitoring of decentralized energy systems1, operating models for mini-grids in urban informal settlements2, and the unique role of off-grid systems in supporting the food/water/energy/health nexus at the community-scale3.
This is just the beginning, however — many questions remain for the RAEL/Congo Power collaboration to uncover in improving the delivery of sustainable and appropriate energy solutions across the various supply chains that constitute the lifeblood of vulnerable communities around the world.
Chief among the initiative’s research ambitions is developing a deeper sense of how to make a dollar investment in renewable energy “go further.” Benchmark impact metrics for innovative energy projects are lacking in the empirical literature, particularly for mini-grid technologies, which are increasingly recognized as the least-cost way to electrify hundreds of millions of those without power. Developing and documenting enabling partnerships also offers a key resource for nations, businesses, multinational aid / development organizations, and civil society to interrogate potential solutions and scale-up winning concepts that can help meet goals set in the Paris Climate Agreements and other Sustainable Development Goals.
Fundamentally, this boils down to exploring what kinds of impact — described both quantitatively and qualitatively — different energy delivery models can achieve across institutional and geographical scales. And beyond the impact evaluation: which narratives can most effectively communicate these insights into actionable support for promising solutions and their developers?
Three implementation partners that have received funding from the Congo Power initiative in East Africa are providing critical insights into the techno-economic and operational side of these questions through emerging research projects with RAEL researchers: Nuru, Equatorial Power, and OffGridBox.
These organizations operate in radically distinct environments; Nuru’s principal installation — among the largest mini-grids in East Africa — currently supplies 830 customers through a 1.3 MW solar-hybrid installation in Goma, with several others throughout remote and rural DRC (the Democratic Republic of the Congo); Equatorial Power’s 20 kWp installation on Idjwi Island on Lake Kivu separating DRC and Rwanda supplies over 300 connections, including several small-to-medium enterprises; OffGridBox, for their part, has one installation in North Kivu’s Walikale (DRC) and delivers both power and water services to Rwandans through approximately two dozen containerized deployments of approximately 3.4 kWp each, as well as several dozen more deployments around the world.
To gain deep yet broad insights into the challenge of strengthening the “golden thread” weaving together distinct project, community, and Sustainable Development Goals, the RAEL/Congo Power research team aims to be both methodical yet practical in developing research themes from these initial project foci — particularly given the challenges of doing in-person research through a pandemic.
One theme that consistently emerges through and across such projects is the importance of “productive” uses of electricity — most often defined as the ability of electricity users to generate additional income on the basis of improved energy access.
When, where, and how are informal artisans, entrepreneurs, and laborers able to convert renewable electricity into improved economic outcomes for themselves, their homesteads and their communities? These questions have proven particularly challenging to answer, despite several decades of scholarship describing productive uses of electricity as a cornerstone underpinning the financial sustainability, and thus scalability, of energy access solutions with high upfront investment costs and low margins.
RAEL researchers have brought novel evaluation approaches to tackle this problematic, including live-monitoring of electricity consumption of productive use pilots across the region, geospatial and remote sensing techniques leveraging satellite imagery and machine learning, as well as piloting new power quality and reliability measurement methodologies through collaborations with infrastructure-tech startups like nLine.
Many important questions beyond how to catalyze economic development through improved electricity access remain critical to interrogate in this research, however. Does street lighting reduce crime in remote villages or rapidly urbanizing environments? Can decentralized energy solutions bridge the gaps in Africa’s vaccine cold-chains? How can project funders best collaborate with private sector implementers, NGOs, and policy-makers to optimize the impacts of a given energy project, targeting outcomes as disparate as supply chain traceability, productive end uses, conservation, or women’s empowerment?
These and many other questions guide RAEL researchers as the Congo Power initiative gains momentum and partners. But a much wider consortium of partners is still needed to confront the magnitude of the challenges ahead, and data-driven research is critical to harness the disparate perspectives, resources, and objectives such a big tent approach entails. This approach is inscribed within and supports Congo Power’s vision of a future where multiple groups of stakeholders work together to address social equity issues in supply chains in parallel with due diligence, as well as RAEL’s vision of a world where climate challenges wrought by extractive capitalism are confronted through intersectional, rigorous, and actionable research.
By Sam Miles, Annelise Gill-Wiehl, Serena Patel, Hilary Yu, Joyceline Marealle, Alyssa Newman, and Daniel Kammen
(1) Miles et al, (2021) “Planning for productive uses: Remote monitoring & evaluation for off-grid power projects in Rwanda.” IEEE Power and Energy Society (PES) / Industry Applications Society (IAS) PowerAfrica Conference (PAC)
(2) Patel et al, (2022) “Sustainable and socially resilient mini-grid franchise model for an urban informal settlement in Kenya.” Economics of Energy & Environmental Policy (EEEP)
(3) Ferrall et al, (2022) “Community energy infrastructure: Point-of-service clean energy to serve the food/water/health nexus.” Applied Energy Symposium: MIT A+B / International Conference on Applied Energy
Dr. Daniel Kammen is the Founding Director, Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, University of California. He has founded or is on the board of over 10 companies, and has served the State of California and US federal government in expert and advisory capacities. As Founding Director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of CA, since 1999 he has also contributed to various reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. He is Chair of the Energy and Resources Group and a professor in both the Department of Nuclear Engineering and in the Goldman School of Public Policy. He has served as the Science Envoy for the United States Department of State and has been the inaugural Chief Technical Specialist for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency at the World Bank. @dan_kammen
Alyssa Newman is a visiting scholar at the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, and also leads Google’s Supplier Responsibility Responsible Minerals and Community Resilience team. With over 20 years of experience in the energy and environmental sector, Alyssa has worked in a broad range of corporate social responsibility functions (private sector, government, and global nonprofits). She supports long term strategic program development and use of innovative tech to drive action, most notably the award winning VR film and campaign Journey of Gold, and the short doc Ukweli. She co-founded Congo Power to address equity issues in mineral supply chains, and bring the benefits of the clean energy revolution to emerging and conflict economies. She’s an advisor and board member to several nonprofits (including: Native Renewables, Action Kivu, Human Needs Project, and Panzi Foundation) working at the intersection of conflict-human rights-climate change-conservation.
Sam Miles is a Ph.D. student in the Energy and Resources Group, and in the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Lab at the University of California, Berkeley. His research focus is at the intersection of the scalability challenge for electricity mini-grids and the socio-economic characteristics of urbanization in Africa, particularly for the artisans and entrepreneurs who constitute the ‘productive’ users of such energy systems. He engages with these questions as an INFEWS (Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy, and Water Systems) NSF scholar. Previous to life at ERG, Sam worked as a freelance writer covering technology in emerging markets, an educator at the African Leadership University in Mauritius, and as an international development consultant based in West Africa. He holds an M.A. in International Energy from Sciences Po — Paris and a B.A. in Ethics, Politics, and Economics from Yale.
Annelise Gill-Wiehl is currently a third year MS/Ph.D. Student in the Energy & Resources Group at the University of California, Berkeley. She graduated from the University of Notre Dame as her class salutatorian in 2019. While at Notre Dame, Annelise studied Environmental Engineering and completed the minor in International Development Studies through the Kellogg Institute. Through the Kellogg Institute’s Internship Program, Experience the World Fellowship, International Scholars Program, Gill-Wiehl conducted four summers of fieldwork in East Africa from 2016 to 2019. Through Kellogg’s ISP program, Gill-Wiehl worked with Professor Sara Sievers and implemented a pilot program that deployed Community Technology Workers to help families transition from firewood and charcoal to gas stoves in Shirati, Tanzania.
Hilary Yu received her B.A. in Government and Biological Sciences, with a concentration in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in the latter, from Cornell University, where she graduated in 2015. At ERG, Hilary is interested in exploring the science-law nexus and the factors – political, economic, and social – that inform the translation of science into legislation. Her academic interests additionally include topics in sustainable development, climate change education, restoration ecology, water and energy efficiency, and environmental justice. Hilary was previously involved in researching energy and wildlife issues as an intern with the NRDC’s Northern Rockies office, and in the year before coming to ERG, she spent some time pursuing another passion, working in Malawi on a death penalty sentence rehearing project. Hilary is a Gates Foundation Millennium Fellow.
Serena Patel graduated from UC Berkeley with a B.S. in Energy Engineering and minor from the Energy and Resources Group. With the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, Serena supports the design, operation, power systems optimization, and social impacts of the clean energy mini-grid powering the Human Needs Project in Kibera, Kenya. She has also worked with Energy Action Partners, the National Renewable Energy Lab, and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab on different microgrid projects exploring the intersection of energy engineering, environmental justice, and economics. Serena is a Technology and Policy masters student at MIT.
Joyceline Marealle is a Tanzanian who holds a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Rochester. Her research interest lies in energy decentralization, diversification, economics and policy making to empower women and improve the standard of living in East Africa. She currently works at the Renewable & Appropriate Energy Laboratory on Off grid systems in remote areas in East Africa. Prior to her MS, Joyceline interned at MIT and conducted research on aluminum batteries for electric vehicles. Additionally, since 2017 she has been working to empower marginalized young women of New Hope For Girls Organization in Tanzania. Among her recent projects is her team winning a $10,000 Davis Project for Peace Fellowship to establish a greenhouse farming business to act as a sustainable income generator for the girls.
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