A truly just energy transition is only possible through collaboration, and we will only further exacerbate human rights violations and environmental issues if we do not address our collective supply chains within the context of climate change and carbon impacts.
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 systems, operating models for mini-grids in urban informal settlements, and the unique role of off-grid systems in supporting the food/water/energy/health nexus at the community-scale.
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 problematique, 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.
Editor’s note: Serena Patel (MIT), Hilary Yu, Joyceline Marealle (both UC Berkeley) and Alyssa Newman (Google and UC Berkeley) also contributed to this article.
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