Leading US public interest energy and environmental research organisation the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) is aiming to increase its relevance and impact in Africa by integrating the problem of energy poverty into its portfolio of research activities.
Senior regional manager Barry MacColl, who joined EPRI in August to oversee the organisation’s African, Middle Eastern, South East Asian and Oceanian operations, tells Engineering News Online that the intention is to offer technically sound solutions for increasing energy access across the continent. It is estimated that more than 600-million Africans still lack access to modern energy services.
MacColl, who spent 26 years at Eskom, most recently as the head of the utility’s research, testing and development unit, says the issue of energy poverty is gaining significance at EPRI as a growing research question that needs to be addressed by the global community. Historically, in the early years after its creation, EPRI focussed mainly on American issues in American utilities.
However, the nonprofit organisation has since expanded EPRI International and currently secures about 30% of its yearly revenues from non-US sources. In Africa, though, Eskom remains EPRI’s sole utility member and MacColl’s mandate is to find ways to grow its client base and increase EPRI’s positive impact on the continent.
Besides addressing the critical issues of energy access, innovative funding models are also being considered to ensure that EPRI’s resources and services are made more accessible to African utilities, governments and energy companies.
“I believe there is potential to group African utilities together to share the costs of researching areas of common interest, such as microgrids, energy storage, electric transport and other distributed energy resources critical in the battle to overcome the poverty backlog. In addition, there could be potential to mobilise development finance to support such programmes, particularly where they increase the pipeline of bankable development projects.”
In South Africa, meanwhile, which is regarded as a more traditional market, EPRI will endeavour to support Eskom with its inevitable migration from coal-based to an increasingly de-carbonised system.
“With over 400 utility members we have good visibility of how others are managing this transition,” MacColl says.
EPRI, he believes, will also be able to add a degree of objectivity to some of the current debates under way in South Africa, ranging from the role of nuclear and renewable energy to the future of the utility model.
“At the moment, many of these discussions tend to be emotional and uninformed. Ultimately, objective, fact-based input is going to be critical if South Africa is going to design and implement a future energy system that is technically robust and affordable.”