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?

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