This IEEE Senior Member is Getting to the Root of Zambia’s Energy Shortage

The Fulbright scholar is living there to study how citizens access and use electricity

13 July 2016

Like many African nations, Zambia has severe electricity problems. The country’s heavy reliance on hydropower and its meager power-distribution infrastructure leaves less than 5 percent of rural Zambians with electricity from the national grid. In cities, that figure is 20 percent. To help the unstable power grid keep up with electricity demand without suffering blackouts, the Zambian government last July started a load-shedding program, which halts power delivery on a rolling schedule to different areas at planned times.

IEEE Senior Member Henry Louie reached Zambia two months after the load-shedding program began. Louie, a member of the IEEE Smart Village executive committee, is spending a year in Zambia as a Fulbright scholar, studying the country’s electrification system—which involves the traditional power grid as well as rural microgrids—and its citizens’ energy usage while teaching at the Copperbelt University, in Kitwe, the country’s second largest city.

“It’s been interesting to live here and adapt my life to not having electricity for a third of the day,” says Louie, who is on sabbatical leave from Seattle University, where he has been a professor of electrical and computer engineering since 2008. “I really wanted to experience teaching engineering in Zambia to broaden my horizons.”

A power engineer with a humanitarian bent, Louie researches how people in impoverished countries such as Kenya and the Philippines access electricity, and how that affects their lives. He has spent a few weeks every year in Zambia since 2009 working on rural electrification projects with a dedicated group of volunteer engineers from Seattle University. In January 2015, Louie helped to found the nonprofit Kilowatts for Humanity, which aims to end energy poverty in the world with the help of grants from Alstom, General Electric, and other companies.

Millions of Zambians living in rural areas without grid connection turn to local microgrids and battery-charging kiosks, which rely on silicon solar cells and wind power. Generally, people without access to the national grid rely on the microgrids. Kilowatts for Humanity works with local nongovernmental organizations and social entrepreneurs to identify electrification needs in a community, then raises grant money to install microgrids that can supply energy to multiple villages.

MEASURING IMPACT

Zambia is one of three countries with a nationwide load-shedding program for its national power grid. Pakistan and Venezuela are the others. Zambia’s program is the most extensive and systematic.

Through his Fulbright scholarship, Louie is evaluating the load-shedding program’s effectiveness in conserving energy in the country and measuring its impact on people and the environment.

To analyze people’s energy use, Louie and his colleagues have surveyed more than 200 households in Copperbelt province connected to the power grid. The researchers have found that since load shedding started, more people are burning charcoal to cook and are using diesel-powered generators, which pollute the air and can cost more than grid electricity. Many people also have shifted their power consumption, turning on hot-water boilers and charging light batteries, during the hours they have power. “If people shift usage, it doesn’t solve the problem,” Louie says. “In some houses, we’re actually seeing increased consumption.

“By comparing survey data with hard data from the national utility company ZESCO, we will evaluate whether the program is actually saving energy.”

Louie is set to present preliminary results at the IEEE Global Humanitarian Technology Conference in October in Seattle. He says he hopes the data can help the Zambian government appeal to the international community for financial help to generate or import more power.

In addition to studying load shedding on the traditional grid, he is analyzing how to optimize microgrids. By remotely monitoring real-time data transmitted from microgrids, using transponders he installed in the Zambian villages of Chikuni and Filibaba, Louie and his colleagues at Kilowatts for Humanity and the IEEE Smart Village committee are trying to evaluate villagers’ energy needs. The data should help determine how much investment is needed, Louie says, adding, “You don’t want to overbuild the microgrid system and waste money, or underbuild so it’s unreliable.”

A NEW PERSPECTIVE

Growing up in Seattle, Louie had an aptitude for math and an interest in engineering. He earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 2002 from Kettering University, in Flint, Mich. The co-op degree program allowed him to work at the power engineering company Electro-Test, which was bought by Emerson Network Power of Columbus, Ohio. “This was the mid-’90s, and computer engineering was huge,” he recalls. “But I loved power engineering from the get-go. It was tangible and exciting. I enjoyed being close to transmission lines and generators in power plants. I got a sense of how important these machines are for our lives and the economy.”

After earning his master’s degree in 2004 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he returned to Seattle to get a Ph.D. from the University of Washington. Soon after, in 2008, he joined Seattle University as an assistant professor. There, an ongoing project for creating a low-cost cellphone charger for sub-Saharan African countries caught his attention. “It was eye-opening,” he says. “I’d never thought about the needs of energy-impoverished nations before.”

He first visited Zambia in 2009. The energy projects there were small initially, mostly constructing wind turbines in villages. Louie gradually recruited IEEE volunteers and raised enough grant money to install microgrids and energy kiosks.

The Fulbright scholarship has allowed him his longest stay in Africa so far. He is now planning a workshop for microgrid operators this month. And he is the technical committee chair for this year’s IEEE PES PowerAfrica Conference in Zambia, which began 28 June.

After the conference, it’s back to Seattle. But he hopes to return to Zambia soon, he says, because “every day here is an adventure.”