Colorado Energy Researchers Devise Third-World Solutions to Promote Development

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Energy Researchers at Colorado State University are developing methods to bring electricity to remote regions of Sub-Saharan Africa, including this region in Uganda. Photo by Dan Zimmerle

Across Colorado, the signs of cutting-edge energy research are apparent with oil rigs, utility lines and solar panels dotting the landscape. But the energy research that could have the greatest impact in Colorado may never generate power in the Centennial State.

At Colorado State University, researchers are working to bring energy to regions of Sub-saharan Africa where rural communities lack the basic resources to support economic and social development. Researchers say the problems and the solutions are multifaceted, but the outcome from inaction is well-known.

“What you have is about 1.2 billion people in the world who have either no access to energy or no access to a regular supply of energy,” said Dan Zimmerle, CSU senior research associate. “What we want to do is provide development because people who have development tend to be going in the right trajectory. It has an impact on Colorado because you don’t want to be dealing with extremist groups and mass migrations and all of the other things. So our work actually comes home.”

The solution to solving the development and power obstacles in rural Africa goes far beyond creating methods of power delivery. Zimmerle and the team at Colorado State University must also solve a wide range of social and cultural problems to ensure access to power actually leads to life-changing development.

“There’s a really interesting analogy between what we’re doing and what happened during rural electrification in the U.S. in the 1930s,” said Zimmerle. “When rural electrification occurred, the federal government came in with the capital to put in the wires and utilities stimulated demand by encouraging the purchase of appliances. They also helped to teach people what they could do with electricity. I think we’re right at that juncture right now in the developing world.”

But Zimmerle says replicating systems that exist in the developed world is not the answer. Doing so would also replicate the environmental impact the developing world already imposes on the planet. Instead, researchers hope to develop an array of new systems that work around the region’s sociological, environmental and technical issues.

A power pole allows citizens in a remote region of Rwanda to access electricity. Photo by Dan Zimmerle.

While the solution-based projects vary according to community, Colorado State University is working with private companies to install microgrids or small electrical grids that can function independently from a large-scale grid. Microgrids typically draw energy from solar power and other renewable sources, and serve as a cost-effective alternative to connecting to a large national grid.

Much of this effort is taking place in countries like Rwanda, where 25 years after the Rwandan genocide, government officials are now encouraging development and have set a goal of connecting the entire Rwandan population to energy within five years.

But while the technology and cost-cutting solutions necessary to meet the goal continue to materialize, the social and cultural issues in rural East Africa continue to present researchers with challenging problems.

“In the U.S., if you want to buy something, even if you’re poor, you have some cash. Most villagers in rural Africa have no cash. There’s no banks. There’s no credit,” said Zimmerle. “So the (understanding of financial transactions) is a fundamental social science problem.”

But while many African villagers lack an understanding of Western-style economics, they are not naive to the world around them. Zimmerle said most villagers, even in rural communities, own a cell phone. They become aware of what’s taking place in the rest of the world, leaving them subject to radical groups promising a better life.

To ensure a smooth research effort, CSU researchers coordinate their efforts through the Colorado Energy Research Collaboratory — a program that brings together researchers from CSU, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the University of Colorado and the Colorado School of Mines. Together, these researchers not only develop technical solutions to energy development, they also conduct workshops to educate policy-makers, and aid organizations and for-profit companies about the needs, problems and benefits of providing power to rural areas of Africa. Zimmerle said the workshops have led to substantive discussion and problem-solving that is yielding results.

“This is a real case where a small amount of funding led to solutions,” said Zimmerle. “If you didn’t have that money to catalyze the interactions, it just wouldn’t happen.”

Empowering Colorado is a nonprofit journalism project dedicated to covering all facets of energy development in the Centennial State. The project is managed by the Colorado Nonprofit Development Center and is funded through donations and grants. For more information about Empowering Colorado or to make a donation, go to empoweringco.org.

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