Ayooluwa Balogun: Energy Access in the City

I came into my summer internship at Aspire Power Solutions with a birds-eye view of the energy access problem. I had just finished a Bass connections class focused on the energy access landscape in Zambia. The Bass Connections was an amazing experience: working in a team to identify what the issues in the Energy space were and then developing practical ways to counter these issues through implementing policy recommendations. In some way, this gave me an optimistic view of the global energy access problem; in the sense that all we needed to do was develop tools to tackle the problem, and if our suggestions were implemented and were effective, then the problem could be solved.
This internship at Aspire gave me the opportunity to explore another side of the energy access conundrum. The guidelines and recommendations that research groups tirelessly work on offer optimistic possibilities for the energy access landscape. However, many energy companies still have to conduct business in the current state of the energy space and find ways to continue to deliver power to people.
I interned for a month and a half with Aspire Power Solutions, a commercial energy solutions company in Lagos, Nigeria. Although just over half of Nigeria is electrified, I think the most interesting challenge is with the electrified population. In both rural and urban areas connected to the grid, power is unreliable and only comes for a couple of hours daily. In fact, some areas with grid connections do not receive power at all. This inadequacy mostly stems from Nigeria’s grid electricity supply deficit and other gross inefficiencies in its power sector. This situation presents many interesting challenges and questions. One of them is this: is an area considered electrified just because the grid is present there or a mini-grid company has established itself in the area? Even if people are receiving power for a couple hours each week? Thinking about energy access in this new way took me past working on the typical problem from my Bass Connections class of identifying what method of electrification is best suited for an area.Generators
For most Nigerians living in urban areas, the grid is the great equalizer as it somehow manages to poorly serve everyone (if it can serve them at all). This creates the Grand Energy Challenge of Nigeria; how do you bring power to “electrified areas”. Many people own appliances they would like to power but are unable to do so reliably if their household solely receives power from the grid. As a result, they are usually are willing to put down a relatively large amount of money for other forms of more reliable electricity. The most readily available solution is the petroleum generator. Portable and powerful, it is easy to see why every neighborhood in Lagos rings at night with the sounds of generators. They are, however, very expensive to maintain and fuel, so many people look to other off-grid power sources for a solution. Solar is by far the most common (if not the only) other alternative.

The Nigerian residential solar industry is ravaged with novice solar installers who routinely conduct poorly finished and short-lived installations. And for many people, running all their appliances on full solar is simply too expensive. So many people end up running on hybrid semi-grid systems: they have a grid connection, use their solar power for essentials when the grid is absent, and run heavier appliances on diesel generators at intervals. These people become energy prosumers as they produce a significant
portion of the electricity they consume. Aspire is focused on serving these prosumers and helping them become more efficient in their power generation and consumption.
Aspire’s vision for the urban customer is to use creatively designed energy systems to help them meet their energy needs efficiently at the lowest cost possible. Most of their past work has been solar system installations, but they have always integrated a unique aspect of consistently creating a smooth user experience for the systems they install. In this past year, they have taken the approach of a smart and interconnected utility service provider and work actively to counter the current barriers prosumers face to accessing affordable, reliable and sustainable power.
Companies like Aspire could redefine the norm of energy services in places where the grid is not fully built out. They focus on fully meeting clientele needs by providing them with energy systems that give them control of their energy supply and demand. Especially as the Nigerian national grid isn’t expected to have significant improvements in the next few years, it is up to innovative off-grid companies like Aspire to pave the way for the future of a fully electrified society powered by a smart grid.
There are several opportunities for academic groups and researchers to contribute to the urban energy access sector in Nigeria. The biggest by far: strategizing for energy solutions in peri-urban areas. People living in these areas have considerable energy demands, but relatively lower income levels compared to urban areas. Especially in the commercial scene of peri-urban areas, affordable and reliable power could make a huge impact. The biggest advancements in electrification in the coming years will be because of the private energy companies, and there is a lot of room for improvement in the strategies off-grid electricity providers can utilize to effectively penetrate, then reliably power the peri-urban areas.

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