Monthly Archives: January 2015

Shifting the Thinking in Electricity Provision

Simon Batchelor from Gamos writes on smart energy grids, encouraging energy consumer engagement in Africa, and the concept of the “smart consumer”.

It is very interesting reading the European Union’s goals around energy, and in particular the ideas around Smart Energy Grids.  They draw a lot from the works of Rochester Institute of Technology, which has produced the following diagram.

Could Energy Consumers in Africa Become Smarter?
Could energy consumers in Africa become smarter?

There is a move within Europe to make people more aware of energy, and for consumers to make more active choices in their energy consumption.  In general terms, researchers talk about how electricity provision has traditionally been a one directional and always on model.  European households sign up to a utility, and expect electricity to be available whenever they want.  In the UK, for instance, they often pay by direct debit (i.e. they don’t really think about the cost – it goes out automatically from their bank), and 63% of them never switch suppliers.  They ‘receive’ electrical energy, and the majority just don’t really think about it.  When it comes to transport, this is a little more on the top of the mind.  Households may spend considerable time choosing whether to travel mainly by car or commute by train, or bicycle.  While the style of the car, and the speed and space it provides are the main criteria when buying a car, most households will at least consider fuel consumption as part of the discussion.

However, when talking to EDF at ICT4S 2014, an electrical utility that provides for 5 million people in UK, and most of France, they are talking more and more about a model where the household is seen as a manager of energy.  Indeed they are trying to shift their thinking from a one direction model to a more complex multi directional model.  The idea is that households can become more aware of their energy consumption, and even adjust their demand to ‘fit’ the supply.   They can also become co-creators of energy in the system.  For instance, households in UK are installing solar panels on their roofs.  Policy instruments such as ‘Feed in Tariffs’ have made it financially attractive for households to install solar.  This makes them co-creators of the electrical supply.  On remote Scottish islands, communities are supplied with a mix of locally generated energy, both large scale wind and micro scale wind and solar, with a grid based backup.  In this setup, if consumers use devices at a particular time of day their demand ‘matches’ the supply, and the system is more efficient (and produces less carbon dioxide).  This is more than energy efficiency as such, i.e. installing energy efficient light bulbs, which is a passive response that saves energy.  What the utilities are now talking about is an active engagement of consumers and helping people graduate through passive energy efficiency to active energy co-creation and management.

Is this shift in thinking at all relevant to Africa???  In Europe much of the discussion about being active co-managers of energy relies on Information Technology – installing smart meters that the consumer can watch and sensors to make ‘smart’ buildings.  On the surface it may seems ridiculous to ask whether energy consumers in Africa can utilise ICT and manage their energy.  Urban dwellers are constantly struggling with load shedding, they do not have ‘always on’ reliable electrical supplies – they are very aware of the supply and their own consumption.  For cooking they have to purchase charcoal, wood or LPG, and are therefore already making active energy choices.  For transport they often have few alternatives, they have to use whatever public/private transport is available and they cannot afford a car (let alone choose a fuel efficient car).

But as I listened to these European utilities discuss how to change passive consumers into active co-creators, I began to wonder whether Africa actually has a better starting point.  Consumers are very sensitive to fuel and energy pricing as it is often a large portion of their household expenditure.  They already attempt to manage their energy consumption due to the costs.  They are not like UK ‘Direct Debit’ consumers – rather they ‘feel’ their energy bills when they are connected, and they are constantly seeking alternative fuels when they are off grid.  Is there something African policy makers can do to leapfrog Europe and help citizens engage more directly with energy planning, to avoid creating ‘one directional’ utility provision?

Clean Energy Transitions – Can Africa Leapfrog?

Simon Batchelor from Gamos Ltd offers his thoughts on smart technology in sustainable energy, and the concept of “leapfrogging” in energy transitions.

I recently attended the conference ICT4S which focuses on using smart technology to manage energy sustainably.  ICT4S is a series of research conferences bringing together leading researchers, developers and government and industry representatives interested in using Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) as a tool to reach sustainability goals. The 1st ICT4S Conference was held in Zürich and attracted 250 participants from 40 countries. The theme of ICT4S 2014 held in Stockholm was “ICT and transformational change”. ‘Sustainable development needs transformational changes regarding both technology and patterns of production and consumption. This conference explores  and shapes the role of ICT in this process and assess positive and negative impacts of ICT on sustainability. ICT for sustainability is about utilizing the transformational power of ICT for making our world more sustainable: saving energy and material resources by creating more value from less physical input, increasing quality of life for ever more people without compromising future generations’ ability to meet their needs.’

Obviously this conference discusses the high tech end of the spectrum.  There are many actions that can be taken to move towards cleaner, more sustainable energy production and consumption.  Switching off lights to save energy can be done by changes in behaviour – people ensuring they switch the light off when leaving the building.  But humans are fallible, so many technicians propose connecting lights to sensors that switch them off when there is no movement.   This conference spent a lot of time discussing such high tech alternatives – smart buildings that monitored and managed energy.  Even smart cities that mapped where people were travelling to and organised the public transport accordingly.

So for instance, one of the papers talks about smart management of a building in the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.  Their paper “GreenMind – An Architecture and Realization for Energy Smart Buildings” states in the abstract that existing buildings are responsible for more than 40% of the world’s total primary energy consumption (although that seems a very high proportion?). They go on to say that current management systems fail to reduce unnecessary energy consumption and preserve user comfort at the same time mainly because they are unable to cope with dynamic changes caused by user’s interaction with the environment.  So they created a software architecture for energy smart buildings.  Experimental results carried out in the Bernoulli building, a 12.000 square meter building of the University of Groningen, show that the proposed solutions are able to save up to 56% of electricity used for lighting, at least 20% of electricity used for heating while the savings from controlling workstations as well as other appliances are 33% and 10%, respectively. overall, their solution is expected to save up to 28% of total energy consumption in buildings such as the Bernoulli building.

But what relevance has this to Africa?  Well, I listened to their Eurocentric presentations with an ear for Africa, and I was surprised by what I heard.   In Citizen observatories of water: Social innovation via eParticipation, I heard officials from the Netherlands discuss how difficult it is to get people to report problems.  “Advanced citizen observatories can enable a two-way communication paradigm between citizens and decision makers, potentially resulting in profound changes to existing flood risk management processes”.   That is; they have created community volunteers who are willing to report problems!  This has been a problem in the past for Africa, not because people are unwilling to get involved (as is the case in Europe) but because the distance to report a problem was too far.  A broken handpump may lie idle because the community do not have the bus fare to get to the district to report it.  However this is changing.  There are mobile phones and reporting problems can be just a phone call away.  Africa does not need sophisticated websites to collect data on problems, it needs only a willing ear to listen – ears which can be used in face to face conversation or through a simple phone call.

As I sat listening to various presentations, looking for the leapfrog technology; I was surprised.  I realised that what Africa had was a leapfrog society.  Citizens who are willing to talk to each other in community, and to engage with officials IF officials are willing to listen.   The matching of mobile phones and a willing society could result in big data that might really help transitions to clean energy.