Interview: the role of research in transforming Ethiopia's energy policy
Interview: Dawit Mekonnen, Principal Investigator of EEG project Improving productive uses of electricity in Ethiopia’s agriculture, and Leake Enquay Weldemariam, Principal Investigator of EEG project Monitoring and assessing power quality problems in Ethiopia
What potential do you see for research to transform Ethiopia’s current energy models?
Dawit: Only 45% of Ethiopians have access to electricity – that leaves a huge chunk of the population without access. Policy decisions designed to tackle this have to be grounded in rigorous research results, not only to improve access but to improve access to good electricity. Many people are subjected to blackouts and have electricity for just a few hours a day.
One obstacle is that the current objective is to get electricity to people’s houses, without then studying what they’re using it for. There is a big role for research in analysing productive uses of energy.
We did research in recent years in rural areas which found that the amount of time people spent collecting wood for fuel wasn’t affected by access to electricity – instead, because access to electricity often didn’t mean access to accompanying equipment such as stoves, these households were using the energy for lighting only.
Through research, productive uses – irrigation, charging, cooling – can be identified, and investment in energy improvement can be made to work harder, potentially moving from a tight focus on grid expansion to spending on infrastructure and equipment.
Leake: Little research has been done on renewable energy and energy saving devices. Nearly all of Ethiopia is likely to have high solar insolation and there are many places with considerably high wind speed. The same is true for hydro and geothermal potential. However, only two fifths of our population have access to electricity and even that is generally of low quality. The government has indicated that about 35% of energy demand could be covered by renewables, which offers ample opportunities for local and international investors.
On the customer side, there are few studies into the low levels of usage of energy saving appliances. Large buildings, including government offices, still use the least efficient models of lamps, even though energy-efficient versions are now on the market at affordable prices. The reason for this could be lack of awareness and/or financial constraints, but a significant research gap exists here.
Ethiopia has the natural resources but for most of the population, investment in renewables (such as off grid) is unaffordable. Through research we can design energy models which could mitigate the energy challenges of our society.
What role do you see your own research playing in this?
Dawit: Irrigation in agriculture is an area with huge potential, and a focus for upcoming government policy. Improving irrigation through better, more productive energy use can double or triple incomes which in turn means paying back investment and improving people’s welfare.
Our previous research, which mapped irrigation suitability across the country, will be mapped against potential energy sources, to answer the question of what energy is needed to develop irrigation at a local level and which are the lowest cost options. Keeping the Ministry engaged during this process is important, especially as progress is made on the Government’s National Electrification Program 2.0.
Leake: Our research will assess the power quality problems severely affecting industrial and commercial customers, with economic losses investigated and solutions demonstrated. The research outputs will play a role in informing guidelines, norms and standards for future Ethiopian regulatory frameworks.
How important is collaboration and cross programme learning between the EEG projects in Ethiopia?
Dawit: There are projects which are a natural fit for us, for example the project being run by RWI Leibniz Institute for Economic Research into electricity demand forecasting in agriculture. Between similar projects it’s important for lots of collaboration to happen. Our data might help them, and theirs might help us.
Leake: In my opinion, collaboration between EEG projects in Ethiopia will be very important, especially between those projects which are related to each other to some degree. Outputs of one project can be inputs for another and overlapping can be avoided.