Electrification as a leapfrog technology
By Frank Bergh, VP Grid Engineering, Sigora International and Jean-Pierre Vertil, Development & Deployment Engineer, Sigora International
Life is always a journey at Sigora! In operating electrical infrastructure for micro-utility businesses in resource constrained environments, I am constantly listening and learning from the ingenuity of our customers and staff in Haiti and Zambia.
Operating multiple electric grids on different continents can be a daunting challenge. My ability to thrive in this role is attributable to several key factors throughout my career:
• Well-rounded experience in renewable energy industry working for wind and solar energy companies, consulting for utilities, and working on infrastructure innovation in a deregulated electric utility
• Emphasis on engineering as a service-driven profession, guided by the real needs of real people, and finding ways to affirm that in volunteer work with Engineers without Borders USA over the past 12 years
• Commitment to focusing on the challenges of social justice and anti-oppression, partnering with marginalized communities where I live and work in order to make the world a safer place for those in greatest need both locally and globally
In the context of rural electrification and energy access, the key takeaways are:
• It’s expensive to be poor – most people living without access to the electric grid are paying de facto coping costs of 1000% - 2500% the cost per kWh that we pay in the USA for electricity services (lighting via candles, cooking with wood, charging cell phones with street vendors).
• Business as usual isn’t working – utility companies in developing countries are insolvent. Of the 39 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, 37 have utility companies that can’t cover their costs. We can do better by building a 21st century electric grid that isn’t constrained by 20th century infrastructure. These countries will never have land line telephones because a better service (mobile phones) got there first. We believe electrification can also be a “leapfrog” technology.
My upbringing in my homeland of Haiti exposed me to the many difficulties that impede the country’s development; including poverty, corruption, unemployment, and the misuse of resources.
Many folks talk about the “Internet of Things” (IoT), Sigora is building the Internet of Energy
I witnessed that electricity drives opportunities, from prolonging school hours to attracting investors in different fields who in turn contribute to the growth and development of impoverished communities. In other words, the generation that has access to electricity is the generation that has access to opportunities. This is what I want for my country.
Being aware of this reality, I became interested in renewable energy, notably solar, and made it a goal to help Haiti and other developing countries identify and implement renewable energy systems to help a greater portion of their population gain access to clean and affordable to electricity.
Energy creates economic activities and empowers young entrepreneurs- job creation both through Sigora and especially indirectly through entrepreneurship initiatives is significantly enabled by our work. It certainly can be frustrating to see “baz zanmi” groups of young people out of school sitting on a sidewalk sharing jokes as a remedy to the lack of opportunities provided by their community- namely due to a lack of infrastructure. Such scenes are common in Haiti, especially in its rural areas. Over the past months, among other initiatives, we have seen a rise in the number of barber shops and street merchants selling “ji blende” (smoothies). These may be small steps but shouldn’t be overlooked as Haiti’s Northwest is slowly becoming a more entrepreneurship friendly area.
How has the advent of latest innovations around Remote Monitoring impacted the Utility space? In your opinion, how would it reshape the landscape?
Remote Monitoring is a core aspect of our product and our business. We have created a smart electric meter with embedded computing power, so that we understand the real-time energy consumption and production. Many folks talk about the “Internet of Things” (IoT), Sigora is building the Internet of Energy.
With the accessibility of single-board computers (SBC) and wireless communication, what used to be a simple part of the electric grid can now be a customer portal with two-way communication and mobile money management for blockchain transactions. The platform is enabled by remote monitoring for system administrators and technicians, who can be remotely dispatched via SMS or automated service alerts from our distributed micro-utility control platform.
One of the main issues faced by utilities in developing countries is energy theft. Remote monitoring helps us better visualize our grid and respond to instances of theft more strategically. We are able to monitor all sections of our grid and respond to anomalies as appropriate.
What according to you are the top Utility Technology trends that are gaining steam?
Renewable energy is the new baseload – for the past 25+ years it is evolved from a fringe/niche technology to establishing versatility in the most important aspect of utility operations. Utilities are becoming a service-model which is customer-driven rather than asset-driven. The most innovative and customer-focused utilities will be the ones left standing during the next decade of transformation in energy delivery.
Where do you see the future of Remote Monitoring? How will technology play a key factor in shaping the Utility space?
Remote Monitoring is only accelerating in terms of prominence for distributed communications and appropriate technology initiatives. More and more of our customers are intuitively embracing mobile app-based transactions, mobile currency, and remote access to their personal and economic behavior when interacting with public infrastructure. Our systems leverage these trends to harness customer participation in shifting the paradigm to a more efficient, flexible, and responsive energy future.
By giving our customer more control over their energy consumption, remote monitoring supports more conscious and deliberate decision making about energy usage. In the long term, this helps transition communities towards more sustainable consumption behaviors