Developing connections for low-carbon energy

Since late last year Alec Edwards has been working with Professor Tim Green on a GCRF project looking at the use of EVs in Africa. In May he gave one of our daytime seminars on that topic. Himself and Dr Nic Hylton have now written us a blog post on Alec’s research but also the recent workshops they organised in Abuja and Nairobi.

People from the Strathmore Energy Research Centre

Many of us take our easy and reliable access to energy for granted – everything from charging mobile devices to lighting and heating our homes and places of work. However, energy access remains a big issue for around 1.1 billion people worldwide.

That’s around 15% of the global population living without reliable access to electricity, 600 million of whom can be found in sub-Saharan Africa. Then there’s the 2.8 billion people who cook without clean fuels and instead rely on wood, coal, charcoal or animal waste for cooking and heating. Once again, in sub-Saharan Africa the situation is critical and 80% of the population rely on solid biomass to cook.

Energy Access for All

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 7 aims to ‘ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all’ by 2030. Researchers at Imperial are keen to get involved in this challenge but tackling such a complex, global issue needs multi-disciplinary collaborative projects that are co-designed and co-developed with people who truly understand the issues at hand.

Recognising this, Energy Futures Lab sought to form a research network with Strathmore University and Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) in Kenya, and The University of Nigeria Nsukka and Federal University of Technology Owerri in Nigeria. The idea behind this network was to promote interaction between Imperial researchers and academics at partner institutions with local and regional knowledge. The continuing goal is to work together to identify the key research problems and their potential solutions, while leveraging the research expertise in energy that Imperial College London has to offer.

Collaboration

A significant part of the Energy for Development Research Network involved the organisation of workshops hosted in Nairobi and Abuja, to be attended by academics from Imperial and its partners, as well as other experts from local businesses and NGOs. The first of these workshops took place on 20th May at Strathmore University in Nairobi and was attended by 15 members of Imperial and 20 participants from a range of organisations in East Africa.

Dr Michael Wawire (JKUAT), Prof Tim Green (ICL) & Prof Izael Da Silva (Strathmore University) opening the workshop
Dr Michael Wawire (JKUAT), Prof Tim Green (ICL) & Prof Izael Da Silva (Strathmore University) opening the workshop

The second workshop took place in Abuja on 23rd and 24th May, this time with around 30 participants (14 from Imperial and the remainder from universities and businesses across Nigeria). The workshops were very successful in enabling the participants to build relationships, discuss the key issues around energy access in Kenya and Nigeria (and with consideration for East and West Africa more broadly) and look ahead to partnering on future project proposals. The Imperial team returned to the UK with new ideas for research projects and with several new links to partner institutions in sub-Saharan Africa.

The workshop group in Abuja, Nigeria
The workshop group in Abuja, Nigeria

Transport: A key topic

In addition to these workshops, the research network also identified four key topic areas for researchers at Imperial and its partner institutions to conduct scoping studies on, in order to identify significant opportunities for collaborative research between the institutions.

The development and maintenance of quality transport services is essential to economic growth and success, but it is important that this transport does not undermine attempts to reduce global CO2 emissions or improve public health. The role of light electric vehicles seems best suited to urban environments where they are closer to a more diverse range of transport needs.

It is difficult and unwise to generalise transport patterns across a region as extensive as Sub-Saharan Africa, but, as with cities across the world, there is a clear market for commercial taxi services over a range of vehicles. These include large vehicles such as minibus taxis that are common in many cities, but also includes smaller vehicles that are more suited to this scope – the motorcycle taxi and auto-rickshaw. These two vehicles are used extensively in cities across the world, such that attempts to electrify them is well on its way.

Auto-rickshaw in Abuja photo by ProfessorTim Green
Auto-rickshaw in Abuja photo by ProfessorTim Green

However, it is difficult to design electrified alternatives to vehicles without a strong understanding of how the originals operate. How fast does it need to travel on what kind of road surface and how long does it usually operate before refueling are obvious questions that need to be answered, but it is also valuable to know where the vehicles typically wait or look for customers. This information is vital to determining practical charging strategies so that commercial electric vehicles can operate competitively against their automotive counterparts – especially when competing with low petrol prices. The workshops resulted in positive and promising discussions with our partners in both Kenya and Nigeria that obtaining GPS data of these vehicles would be a tractable task for us to work together on in the future.

Alec Edwards

Alec is currently a research assistant in the Energy Futures Lab as part of the Energy for Development Research Network, supported by the Global Challenges Research Fund.

Alec holds a MEng in Engineering Science from the University of Oxford, specialising in Control and Information Engineering.

In October 2019 he will begin a PhD at the Universty of Oxford as part of the Autonomous Intelligent Machines and Systems CDT.

Dr Nic Hylton

Nic leads research development activities at Energy Futures Lab and supports the academic directors in developing the strategic direction for the institute. He is responsible for stimulating and supporting the development of cross-faculty collaborations in energy research at Imperial College London, with an emphasis on multidisciplinary programmes. This includes identifying technology trends and opportunities and mobilising the College community accordingly.

Prior to joining Energy Futures Lab Nic was active in academic research. He completed a PhD in Photon Physics at the University of Manchester studying the optical properties of semiconductor nanostructures for applications in energy-efficient solid-state lighting.

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