Key observations from the Grid Reliability and Utility Operations Conference
Simon Trace, EEG’s Programme Director, highlights some key takeaways from the Grid Reliability and Utility Operations Conference.
While more and more people in low- and middle-income countries might be gaining access to electricity, the service they receive is often low-quality and unreliable. Homes and businesses are plagued by scheduled electricity shutdowns, unplanned power outages and voltage fluctuations – lasting for hours, or even days. It is becoming increasingly important for policy makers to understand the quality of energy access, and how the reliability of on-grid electricity can be improved. With utilities in developing countries facing many financial and operational challenges, this is a problematic issue – and research plays a key role.
With this in mind, EEG recently hosted a two-day Grid Reliability and Utility Operations Conference in Accra, Ghana, in collaboration with the World Bank’s Energy Sector Management Assistance Program (ESMAP) and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). The conference showcased findings from emerging research on the challenges that utilities in low- and middle-income countries face in delivering reliable, sustainable electricity to customers. It brought international researchers and policy makers from across the world together, which is essential for increasing research uptake.
We were joined by speakers and guests from Ethiopia, Kenya, Ghana, India, Mozambique, Nepal, the UK, USA, Venezuela, Nigeria, Japan and Sierra Leone. Some presentations covered technical issues and others focused more on policy. The topics covered included the impacts of unreliable electricity supply; the role of technology and utilities in increasing reliability; the impacts of non-technical losses and the remedial measures available; power sector reform, including tariff-setting and market structures; dispatch diagnostics; and the technical and HR constraints facing utilities.
Four key takeaways emerged from the conference:
Impact of unreliability
It was clear from several of the sessions that an unreliable supply of electricity has a significant economic impact, on both industry and households. A key observation was that it’s important to get a better sense of unreliability – not just at the aggregate level of an electricity system, but also from a bottom-up, household view.
Institutional responses to improving reliability
Several presentations tackled this issue, and topics included community-based rural electricity utility models in Nepal; women’s participation in the energy sector leading to improved performance of utilities; and the argument that digitalisation might be part of the solution, providing utilities with the data they need to improve reliability. The presentations highlighted there is plenty of potential for further research around which institutional responses provide the best return on investment in terms of improving grid reliability.
A presentation on our keynote project GridWatch kicked off the conference. It covered the use of phone apps and household level metering to crowdsource data on distribution line reliability. Approaches to monitoring reliability was a topic that was returned to again and again by many presenters throughout the conference.
Three themes stood out. Firstly, monitoring reliability at different levels in the network (transmission, distribution and household) can provide very different pictures of the level of reliability experienced, and there is therefore a need to monitor at multiple levels (including household) to provide proper understanding.
Secondly, utilities don’t often have access to household-level data and, as a result, under-report unreliability (and are presumably ill-informed about the need for specific remedial actions as a result).
Thirdly, measuring reliability is not just a matter of the number of hours a day supply is available. The quality of the supply is also critical from a consumer’s perspective – notably the level of voltage fluctuation and when power is available during the day. Load shedding in daylight hours can have significant impacts on productive use, while load shedding at night has an impact on domestic use, for example.
Use of data as an advocacy tool
Two presentations touched on the use of data as an advocacy tool. They discussed how putting reliability data into the public domain could raise awareness and create public pressure on utilities to be more accountable for their performance to consumers. An interesting topic for further research here would be the extent to which public pressure and good data leads to improvements in utility performance and reliability in practice.
Details on the conference speakers and a selection of presentations can be found here, along with relevant EEG research projects.