Dr Rebekah Shirley on reorganizing the electricity sector for system efficiency

We spoke with Dr. Rebekah Shirley, Director of Research, Data and Innovation at the World Resource Institute Africa, in an exclusive Women in Energy interview that was featured, in part, in the WISE Africa Review: Issue 1-2022.

Since he spoke to us in number 3 of the WISE Africa magazine in 2018, Dr Rebekah Shirley moved into her new role at the World Resources Institute, where she works with a host of researchers to support the local delivery and implementation of solutions to revitalize African landscapes, build the resilience of its growing cities and encouraging the transformation of the highly economic systems that govern Africa’s development.

ESI: Since your involvement in the ESI Africa Women in Energy file, what have been the highlights of your involvement in the energy sector?

At WRI Africa, I helped develop our energy program, which includes three key work streams: developing sustainable demand-side models that help improve the economics of providing energy access services in Africa ; “greening” investment flows to the continent to support clean energy projects that promote local livelihoods and environmental health; and support evidence-based African perspectives on energy transition pathways for the continent. I am really proud of the work we are doing to encourage greater local participation in these debates and dialogues, in particular by raising awareness of the issues among young people.

I was recently appointed to the board of Ashden, a global climate charity, where I help highlight the impactful work of community organizations delivering local climate and energy solutions. I focus on climate solutions that create jobs for Africa.

Likewise, I have worked extensively to help bridge the gap between research, universities and higher education institutions, and the clean energy workforce. With Strathmore University, I led the design of one of the most innovative Masters in Energy programs in the East African region. The Master in Sustainable Energy Transitions is made up of technical rigor and tailored components to give students real world exposure to energy issues, industry and practitioners and to support them after graduation with a strong recruitment pipeline . The program launched in 2021 and the first cohort of students have now completed their first year!

Our electricity sector needs an overhaul, a reorientation around demand growth, investment in strong distribution infrastructure and system efficiency.

ESI: What developments in the energy sector do you expect in the years to come?

I am encouraged by the number of integration pilots and initiatives that are now growing in the region. We launched one of the first integrated energy projects with Umeme Ltd and its partners, which is now operational in Uganda. Models, where utilities and developers can work together commercially to provide energy access to communities and directly support the development of small and medium enterprises, will significantly improve the economics and pace of energy service delivery.

Similarly, it has been amazing to see how commercial and industrial (C&I) solar has taken off over the past three years. In Kenya, it is the fastest growing solar segment today, with more than 50 MWp installed. I recently wrote about this trend and what it means for utilities. I believe that it is high time to focus more on providing reliable and high quality energy services to businesses and that this will help accelerate the pace of access for homes and households. Some of the sharpest commercial banks are supporting this C&I movement, so I’m excited to see how this segment will develop in the next few years.

I’m very excited about the developments that are happening in the ‘nexus’ areas of energy and mobility and energy and food. For example, I think electric mobility makes sense in the African context for many reasons before and beyond emissions. There is a major economic argument to be made, given the rising costs of fuel both to the end user and to the governments that subsidize it. Private electric vehicles are still far too expensive for widespread adoption in these markets. I see the transition happening first in public transit spaces – two-wheelers and buses. It’s exciting for me and I can’t wait to see which cities will work with developers to create the right environment for take-off.

It’s amazing how commercial and industrial (C&I) solar has taken off in the last three years. In Kenya, it is the fastest growing solar segment today, with more than 50 MWp installed.

ESI: If you were Minister of Energy, what would be your first decree? And why?

If I were energy minister I would first work with the energy regulator to completely rethink the utility model and how utilities are incentivized, as has been done in other economies advanced energy. Currently, our utilities are rewarded based on the number of kWh they can sell, rather than their ability to meet customer service needs. But honestly, it’s quality and reliability that are the proven keys to growing long-lasting demand. Thus, our electricity sector needs an overhaul, a reorientation around demand growth, investment in strong distribution infrastructure and system efficiency.

Second, I would directly address transparency and accountability in the electricity purchasing and contracting process, which negatively affects energy accessibility for far too many people, especially in these difficult economic times.

Thirdly, I would focus on working with my fellow ministers to support energy developers in the agricultural value-added and transportation sectors as areas for expansion of new demand growth that also create jobs and economic value to our communities. I would create the political and fiscal environment that lets investors around the world know we are open for business! ESI

Read the Women in Energy article published in issue 1-2022

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