Exploring How to Bring Electricity to East Africa
The ready availability of electricity is something we take for granted here in the U.S., while many developing African countries do not have the infrastructure to bring electricity to the citizens of their rural regions.
In order to develop a model for such an infrastructure — one that brings electricity more equitably to rural parts of African countries — researchers from both ISyE and ExxonMobil are working together to create a 30-year model for potential electricity generation. They are focusing particularly onthe east African countries of Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania, and the central African country the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Such a problem is compounded, said Valerie Thomas, ISyE’s Anderson Interface Professor of Natural Systems, because “on the one hand, there are many people without access to electricity and on the other hand, you have the governments and agencies and companies that would build this capacity but also are poor. It’s not that there’s no grid, but there’s not much of one.”
Thomas and ISyE research partner Dima Nazzal, Executive Director of Academic Administration and Student Experience, are confident this problem can be solved, however. “It’s a very difficult problem,” said Nazzal. “We are attempting to design a large-scale complex system that has conflicting performance objectives and significant levels of uncertainty when it comes to electricity generation and storage capacities, electricity demand data, and stakeholders utility, to name a few. But this type of project is perfectly aligned for industrial and systems engineering research. We model these types of systems and try to create robust cost-effective designs – deciding where to locate power plants, where to build the grid network, and how much demand to satisfy, while balancing limited financial and natural resources.”
One possible solution is the hydroelectric resources available in east Africa and other parts of the continent. “There is the potential to build large dams,” explained Thomas, “that could provide electricity reliably in high quantities at low cost, if the generation and transmission system could be built, and if the environmental and social impacts could be addressed. Or, smaller lower-impact hydro power could provide more local solutions.”
Thomas and Nazzal are also considering the balance between fossil fuels such as natural gas or petroleum and more climate-friendly resources such as solar or hydro. ISyE Ph.D. student Amelia Musselman is working with Thomas and Nazzal to develop an optimization model on how to supply electricity to the greatest number of people. She said that right now, she has “the model formulation ready — or at least the first version — and I’m working on programming it and getting the data to solve it.”
ExxonMobil is working in conjunction with the ISyE team to construct models that can evaluate many trade-offs in a systematic manner, by selecting appropriate optimization tools.
According to Thomas, the next step is testing and validating the model to verify that it works: “Then we will do some experiments to answer the big questions about tradeoffs between environmental impact and costs.”