Rural electrification: Understanding evolution of electricity consumption in rural areas

Solar panelsOur latest blog post comes from Rishab Shrestha one of the people studying for our MSc in Sustainable Energy Futures. Each student on the course must work on a project for their thesis and here Rishab outlines his research on electricity uptake and demand in rural areas of developing nations.

Modern forms of energy, like electricity, provide a range of benefits to households, enterprise and the entire community. However, nearly 1.3 billion people are still without access to electricity particularly in rural Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Electricity needs to be provided at an affordable price to exploit the benefits of electricity. The cost of supplying electricity, through grid extension or mini grids or standalone off grid system, is dependent on the demand for electricity in rural areas.

However, very little data is available on electricity uptake in rural areas and how their electricity demand evolves over time. This information is crucial for supplying electricity at affordable price in the short term and as well as in the long term when demand is expected to increase. This information also provides insight on how electricity will be adopted in places where people have been used to using traditional fuels.

For my bachelor’s degree I studied physics at Mahidol University International College, Thailand, including research on dye-sensitised solar cells. During my third year, I took part in an exchange programme with the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, USA where I also studied an energy module. Energy infrastructure and services are very poor in my country Nepal, and I wanted to find out how I could help. The MSc in Sustainable Energy Futures offered by Energy Futures Lab felt like the right place. I wanted a broad understanding of multi-disciplinary subjects and also be able to assess feasibility of various low carbon technologies. I also looked forward to the debate module of the course as I had enjoyed debating on energy policy issues when I was member of debate club in my previous college.

For my thesis, I am studying rural electricity consumption and how it evolves over time. Real time data of electricity consumption is provided by MeshPower, a spin-off company from Imperial College. They currently provide electricity in rural parts of Rwanda and India through solar powered mini grids. I am working on the process of visualising and analysing the electricity consumption time series data.

There are range of household factors including income, household size and lifestyle as well as external factors such as climate, subsidies and the availability of credit facilities that affect electricity consumption. Based on demographic surveys done by MeshPower when they started providing their services, I will be comparing these characteristics with their electricity consumption data to draw insights. These data should help estimate consumption levels over various periods of time for villages depending on range of households and village characteristics.

Demand inputs are often the starting points for models used for electricity supply technology optimisation. Currently rural demand estimation are mostly based on surveys or derived from macro-economic variables like population growth and GDP depending on the time frame required. Real time use data provides us with a better picture and can be used in generating more accurate predictions. Furthermore, understanding electricity usage at an appliance level provides further potential for demand side management which could reduce cost of electricity for the users.

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