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Electrification planning made easier with new open source tool

Dimitris Mentis's picture
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Evaluating the optimal way to expand electricity access across a country is difficult, especially in countries where energy related data is scarce and not centralized. Geospatial plans informing universal electricity access strategies and investments can easily take 18 to 24 months to complete.

A team working on a national electrification plan for Zambia last December did not have that much time.

They faced a six-month deadline to develop a plan, or they would miss out on a funding window, said Jenny Hasselsten, an energy specialist at the World Bank brought in to help with the electrification project in partnership with the government of Zambia.

That’s when Hasselsten learned of the Electrification Pathways application. The open source tool aims to drastically speed up electrification planning and reduce its costs, and is now available on ENERGYDATA.INFO, a new platform for energy-related open data and analytics with more than 280 datasets and 14 partners so far.

Developed by the World Bank, ESMAP and KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, the application uses 16 Geographic Information System (GIS) datasets such as population density, proximity to power infrastructure, and energy resource availability to estimate the least-cost technology options for bringing electricity to particular geographic areas as granular as 1 square km in size. For each location, seven mature electrification technologies are compared and the least-cost system is selected. Notably, the Electrification Pathways’ algorithm incorporates ESMAP’s Multi-tier Framework, the new approach to defining, measuring, as well as monitoring and evaluating energy access.

It is the first open source tool based on open data and open source software that not only provides least-cost electrification plans for different scenarios but also maps the underlying data. This enables users to understand the solutions suggested by the model outputs and gain insights about the investment dimension of different scenarios. As open source, developers can alter the code to modify the tool for their purposes, as well as switch out and layer additional datasets easily thanks also to its modular design.

As opposed to typical national energy system models, the tool bases its estimates on spatially disaggregated regions. This is key, because achieving the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) on energy access (SDG 7) target of universal access by 2030 will require a geographic approach to service delivery, and hence to demographic, infrastructure, and resources information. The Electrification Pathways application  is based on the Open Source Spatial Electrification Tool (OnSSET) developed by KTH and recently included in the SDG Acceleration Toolkit.

The application was rolled out with data on three countries: Tanzania, Nigeria and – fortunately for Hasselsten’s project – Zambia.

The tool produced rough investment figures that allowed the team in Zambia to see that off-grid solutions – specifically, solar home systems – should play a significant role in providing access to electricity in a very large geographic area, Hasselsten said. In a smaller segment of the country, hydro and solar mini-grids were estimated as the optimal solutions.

A study was quickly launched to understand the barriers for solar home systems and how to stimulate a commercial market for them. Seeing that access to finance was a key constraint, the electrification plan moving forward includes developing a credit line through the Development Bank of Zambia for companies, importers, and retailers selling home solar systems.

“It was clear from having this picture that if we really want to increase access in Zambia, we needed to introduce off-grid solutions. We would never be able to increase access only focusing on grid solutions,” said Hasselsten, who is working with Zambia’s Ministry of Energy, Rural Electrification Authority and utility ZESCO on the project. “It has helped us with the design of the project, and now it will help us focus our resources.”

This case is a great example of why the Electrification Pathways tool was developed, and the potential for similar technology to jumpstart progress on SDG 7.  

Despite the importance of electricity services for economic and social development, about 1.1 billion people lack access to them. But that will change in the future. The only questions are how, how fast, and at what cost. GIS data and associated open source analytical tools have a big role to play in achieving sustainable energy for all.

Open tools and data are essential to inform decision-making in the energy field and help bridge science, technology and policy at different levels in a transparent manner.  Existing tools using GIS based methods for electrification can be found here, here and here, while the latest available efforts using open source data and software to address electrification questions can be found at UNDESA, KTH, and the World Bank.

Already, planners are putting the open source electrification tool to use. ABB, an industrial partner on the OnSSETproject, has decided to use the tool to identify market opportunities. The World Bank and others are using it for electrification planning. And academia at other universities are using it as well.

In the case of Zambia, the World Bank board approved the team’s proposal in June and the electrification project is moving ahead.

“We were able to prepare it in one-third of the time that projects are typically prepared,” Hasselsten said. “In order to move quickly [on expanding sustainable electricity access], that’s what we need to do.”