Prof Ustun's research group tackles energy poverty-Carnegie Mellon University Africa - Carnegie Mellon University

Prof Ustun's research group tackles energy poverty

CMU-R Researchers Tackle Energy Poverty One Step at a Time 

In the developing world, energy poverty is still rife. Nearly 1.6 billion people still have no access to electricity, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Communication technologies, education, industrialization, agricultural improvement and expansion of water systems all require abundant, reliable, and cost-effective energy access. Therefore, access to energy is fundamental to improving quality of life and is a key imperative for economic development. 

However, energy poverty is of worldwide concern as it may occur developed economies in emergency situations, such war or natural disasters [7]. In the past, only minimum energy quantities were studied when defining energy poverty, but the quality and cleanliness of energy are now beginning to be considered and so renewable energy is becoming increasingly important. 

While a great number of projects are underway to expand and connect the existing grid networks, there are issues connecting to the grid for the vast majority of people in Africa, who live in rural areas. While macrogrids are common in the developed world because they offer excellent economies of scale, microgrids may hold the key to electrifying Africa, where nearly 600 Million people live without access to electricity.

Microgrids are small-scale electrical generation and distribution systems that deliver power in a small region near the power sources, contrary to the traditional, centralized electricity grid (macrogrid). Microgrids can disconnect or indeed be disconnected from the centralized grid and operate autonomously. They are typically low-voltage AC grids and are installed by the community they serve.

However, business and operational models for the use of microgrids in rural settings in Africa have yet to be fully studied. A team of student researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Rwanda under the supervision of Professor Taha Selim Ustun having been tackling this with a series of interrelated studies published over the past year in IEEE conferences and journals.

When thinking about the energy requirements for off grid communities, the first problem is how to estimate the demand, i.e. if a community has never had electricity, how can we estimate and plan for their projected need?

Professor Ustun addressed this issue with a paper on modeling demand for unconnected communities, which was awarded Best Paper at SCIEI in St Petersburg earlier this year [5].

The next big question is how the demand can be best served in terms of infrastructure and business models i.e. can the community sustainably afford the energy services they will be offered? 

Pittsburgh-based PhD student Nathan Williams worked on business models for rural areas during his time in Rwanda [8]. In many rural communities cases, the business case is not strong, meaning that the demand for domestic consumption is not high enough to absorb the cost of the required infrastructure. In these cases, it is worth first considering is macrogrid connectivity or a microgrid is more cost effective? 

Having proven the viability of a microgrid solution compared to a grid extension [2], Prof. Ustun and his students began to think about the concept of “anchor customers,” which would be the source of the anchor loads (primary source of stable demand for electricity for planning purposes) which justify the investment. Households could then be seen "add-on" demand. Three such possibilities for anchor customers were considered by CMU-R researchers for the rural areas: Coffee Farms[1], Smart Farms[4] and Health Clinics[3]. Future publications are focused on providing tools and applications to help practitioners implement the models presented in earlier papers [10], [11].

Microgrid implementations give rise to many questions, which require further study. CMU has designed a test-bed called RESIC, Rwanda Energy System Innovation Center, which will be presented in Morocco in December 2015 [6]. Being steeped in the problems of the region and equally plugged into the latest technology trends, affords CMU-R researchers ample cause for optimism. And optimism can be infectious! Following his presentation to the the World Energy Council, they plan to feature Prof. Ustun’s work in their magazine in an article entitled “What the world can learn from Africa.”

There are certainly barriers to be overcome, however bringing energy where there is none not only provides a fertile ground for research but brings the possibility to change lives and livelihoods across the continent.

Related Links

How Rwanda's Clinics have gone Off Grid

The Dyanamic Structure of Microgrids

From Food Science to Smart Farms 

CMU-R students present at IEEE conference in Tunisia

Africa's Low Carbon Revolution



Research Papers

1.         “The Role of Microgrids & Renewable Energy in Addressing Sub-Saharan Africa’s Current and Future Energy Needs” Paul Buchana & Taha Selim Ustun. IREC 2015.

2.         ”The Case for Microgrids in Electrifying Sub Saharan Africa” Jean Pierre Murenzi & Taha Selim Ustun. IREC 2015.

3.         “Smart Energy Management for PV Energised Health Clinics in Underserved Communitites”, Diogene Niyigena, Concorde Habineza, Taha Selim Ustun. Microgen 2015.

4.         “Integration of Smart Grid in Smart Farms”, Stephen Odara, Taha Selim Ustun. IEEE TIAR 2015.

5.         ”TITLE NOT FOUD” Taha Selim Ustun. (ICMSC 2015)

6.         “Design of a Generic Microgrid Testbed with Novel Control and Smart Technologies” Ashok Tak, Taha Selim Ustun. IRSEC 2015.

7.         “Energizing microgrids with electric vehicles during emergencies - Natural disasters, sabotage and warfare” T. S. Ustun, U.Cali, M.Kisacikoglu. INTELEC 2015.

8.         “Enabling private sector investment in microgrid-based rural electrification in developing countries: A review” Nathaniel J. Williams,Paulina Jaramillo, Jay Taneja, Taha Selim Ustun. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews. 2015; 52: 1268-1281.

9.         “Optimizing Energy Use of SmartFarms with Smartgrid Integration” Stephen Odara, Zain Khan, Taha Selim Ustun. IRSEC 2015.

10.       “TITLE NOT KNOWN” Diogene Niyigena, Taha Selim Ustun. CONF TITLE 2016.