Photo Credit: Zola - Off Grid Electric

Photo Credit: Zola - Off Grid Electric

One of the biggest gaps identified by the decentralized renewable energy (DRE) sector is access to quality data and research. The African Development Bank (AfDB) for instance recently said lack of reliable data is one of the single most critical challenges for private mini-grid investors. Power for All’s Platform for Energy Access Knowledge (PEAK) was created 18 months ago to help bridge that gap – both to provide data needed by the sector, and to help make most effective use of the information which already exists. PEAK addresses the gap in information availability and use by supporting the visibility, discoverability and usability of critical knowledge for the sector through research, our interactive knowledge sharing platform communications and advocacy.

Our research has explored key policy drivers for unlocking DRE market potential in high growth markets and tracking the establishment of energy access targets in low energy access (LEA) countries. Our current research agenda includes exploring evidence of socio-economic benefits from DRE; understanding the relationship between DRE market expansion and workforce development; and developing an analytical framework for exploring DRE implications for utilities of the future in LEA countries. We are also synthesizing existing evidence on mini-grid markets and the innovative productive uses of electricity and micro-enterprise being deployed in India. 

As the head of PEAK and Power for All’s research director, I have the amazing opportunity of engaging with our partners—companies, policy makers, investors, civil society, the media—to constantly understand what type of data is still needed and by whom. In order to have even more direct, frontline engagement, I recently relocated from Berkeley, California to Nairobi, Kenya. 

Kenya is one of the most dynamic, fastest growing DRE markets in the world and while here I am collaborating with researchers at the Strathmore Energy Research Center (SERC) on the Strathmore University campus. 

In the 5 years since its establishment SERC has quickly solidified itself as a leader in energy access, having jointly developed a solar installation training curricula used country-wide, maintaining and operating four grid-tied roof-top PV installations across the campus; and working towards ISO accreditation for solar home system (SHS) product testing. 

In partnership with SERC and other international institutions like the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory on the UC Berkeley, my team and I are developing a research agenda to explore some of the most critical energy access topics, such as how advances in DRE influence electricity capacity expansion and the future of energy regulation in LEA countries.  

DRE costs have decreased dramatically in the past decade and in some places have become cost competitive with grid power in price and performance. Small-scale generation, efficient DC appliances, demand response technology, ‘behind the meter’ storage options and the rise of promising platforms such as blockchain are allowing customers to produce, store and use electricity onsite more efficiently. In developed electricity markets, such as California, this has begun translating into reduced customer purchases from the utility, a decoupling of utility revenues from such sales and a stronger focus on maintaining distribution networks – an evolution of the utility’s role as primarily a supplier of electrons.

Utilities in LEA countries however confront a very different set of challenges compared to utilities in wealthier economies - they are capital and usually cash constrained and have a relatively low demand base. Furthermore, in LEA countries large portions of the rural population remain without electricity, existing grid systems are often limited, and service and product quality and reliability is low compared to wealthier economies. Given these major political, economic, and social differences, the utility of the future in LEA countries is expected to perform different roles in order to fulfill its public service objectives as compared to  mature electricity market counterparts. 

The next generation utility will need to focus on harnessing demand-side forces, aligning their incentives with those of both the consumer and of the DRE provider; and supporting new regulatory and institutional paradigm shifts. Failure to do so will mean the eventual displacement of an increasingly outdated utility model and can hinder progress to universal energy access. 

We posit that integrated energy planning lies at the heart of this paradigm shift. However utility planning tools and capacity expansion models are often limited in their consideration of DRE, multiple energy access tiers, demand forecasts, distributed solutions, the economic value of reliability, or the costs of technical losses, creating a fundamental barrier to integrated energy planning. Our collaborative research exercise addresses this challenge directly, by using new analytical tools and direct industry engagement to explore optimal models for energy planning and their implications for utility business models and regulatory institutions in low energy access countries.  

Another related data gap in the energy access space revolves around understanding the impacts of energy service technologies. A new report to be released November 16 at COP23 by Power for All and SEforALL, “Why Wait? Seizing the Energy Access Dividend”, marks the start of an important research effort to collect existing data and quantify development benefits from access to electricity. We are collaborating with other institutions to develop a framework that assesses the social, development and human rights benefits that result over time from the delivery of different tiers of electricity service to a household or a community – called the access dividend.

We hypothesize that the energy access dividend will be high when low-tier off-grid access can be rapidly deployed in situations where good quality grid connection remains a distant prospect, and/or where the development benefit of low-tier access is almost as great as high-tier access. Conversely, the energy access dividend will be low when the potential benefits of low-tier access are low, and/or the population is about to gain access to a high-quality grid connection.

Such a framework and the supporting evidences will be directly relevant to policy makers involved in integrated energy planning at the national level, and funders – both locally and domestically – seeking to derive maximum impact from energy investment. 

Complementary to this research, PEAK is also developing an interactive information platform for the sector that will be launched in 2018. PEAK’s technology automatically curates and processes vetted, high-quality open-access research, helping users (e.g., policy advisors, practitioners or journalists) to quickly find and visualize data and draw insights that enable easily shareable, compelling, data-driven stories and proof points needed to advance the sector. PEAK’s technology will help make existing data more readily useable by target audiences and will help identify the gaps that need critical attention. 

Keep watching this space for more about PEAK and our work. And if you have thoughts to share, email PEAK@powerforall.org