Interview with Simon Trace, EEG Programme Director
As Programme Director of Energy and Economic Growth (EEG), carried out by OPM, Simon Trace has had overall responsibility for the management and direction of the programme, including reporting to the FCDO as its funder. His role involved overseeing country scoping studies to understand potential research needs in the energy sector and designing and running calls for research proposals. With support from his EEG colleagues, Simon has continually interacted with over 30 research teams – to keep track of progress as projects went forward, to support them in delivering high-quality outputs, and to provide a layer of quality assurance as final research outputs were delivered.
Simon has over 35 years’ experience working in international development, with a focus on access to basic services (energy, water, and sanitation), natural resource management, and technology. He has held senior executive positions in international NGOs, with his roles including International Director of WaterAid and CEO of Practical Action.
Here we talk to him about what the EEG programme has achieved, including its potential impact on policy making in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia; research findings he found particularly interesting; and the impact that COVID-19 had on the programme.
As the EEG programme comes to an end, what main things do you think have been achieved? What are you most proud of?
First and foremost, that despite many challenges, not the least being the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences, our research partners still managed to complete over 30 large-scale research projects, delivering a wide range of important insights. The breadth and depth of those findings are reflected in a collection of over 140 papers published on the EEG website and over 50 journal articles that have been published or are under review to date.
We were defined as an applied research project – that description has remained central to the way we have worked. EEG kicked off in 2016 with a systematic and wide process of engagement with policy makers and energy practitioners to understand the challenges they face, and how research can help overcome them.
Government bodies from numerous low-income countries provided substantial support in defining the objectives of the EEG programme, including the Ethiopia Ministry of Water, Irrigation and Electricity; Sierra Leone Ministry of Energy; Nepal National Planning Commission; and Kenya’s Ministry of Energy and Petroleum, among others. The result was a series of competitive calls for proposals on four themes: 1) efficient and productive use of electricity; 2) reliability of electricity systems; 3) integration of renewables into the electricity network; and 4) the technological and political challenges of connecting people to the grid.
And the results of the research we commissioned focused on intensely practical policy issues, ranging from identifying best practice in procuring large-scale renewable generation to understanding the impacts of tariff changes on household and business electricity consumption in Ethiopia.
What impact do you hope the programme will have on policy making in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia? Have any impacts been seen so far? How will you ensure the research results continue to have an impact?
Our routes to policy impact have followed three pathways:
- Building capacity. Several of our projects have directly built skills and capabilities within national institutions that will help shape policy in the future. One is our work with the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm to build capabilities with individuals from institutions in Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, and Uganda to use open-source modelling tools to improve energy planning and policy making. KTH also supported the development of three energy planning centres of excellence by working closely with its partners – the University of Addis Ababa and the Ministry of Water and Energy in Ethiopia; the Ministry of Energy in Sierra Leone; and Makerere University and the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development in Uganda. The project team helped to build the components of an energy planning ‘ecosystem’ by providing starter datasets and tools, online teaching material, and training, events, modelling, and planning skills.
- Encouraging action. By working alongside local and international decision makers, our research has often been able to spark new action. In India, for example, the University of California, Berkeley, the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, and the self-help group organisation JEEViKA conducted a technology trial to measure energy savings from energy efficient ceiling fans in rural households in Bihar, India, followed by a field experiment to assess the demand and willingness to pay for such fans in rural, low-income households. The team worked closely with the Government of India company Energy Efficiency Services Limited (EESL) to procure super efficient ceiling fans for the field experiment. EESL aims to reduce the purchase prices of energy efficient appliances through bulk procurement programmes. While EESL has been able to create and meet demand for such ceiling fans in urban areas, harder to reach peri-urban and rural markets present more of a challenge. But based on Berkley’s successful partnership with JEEViKA, EESL will now be partnering with them to distribute energy efficient ceiling fans and other energy efficient appliances through their women-run solar shops in Bihar. This EESL-JEEViKA partnership has the potential to scale up in other parts of the country, which could dramatically increase access to energy efficient ceiling fans across rural India.
- Embedding change in policy. Some of our research projects have resulted in direct national policy change. In Uganda, despite high-level commitments to reduce industries’ electricity consumption by 15-25% by 2025 in an effort to improve energy efficiency, the country is far from reaching this target. An EEG research project with University College London focused on two industries: the iron and steel industry and the cement industry; which are among the most energy-intensive industries in Uganda. The project adopted a multi-stakeholder deliberative approach to address some of the barriers and transaction costs the iron and steel and cement industries face. As a result of this work, the Permanent Secretary of the country’s powerful Ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development confirmed that the research findings “informed the decisions to include Iron and Steel and Cement in the Sustainable Public Procurement National Action Plan with the objective of using the Government’s buying power to influence best practices in the industries.”
Have you found any of the research results particularly striking or surprising?
We sponsored some research to model the techno-economic feasibility of a possible transmission line to link the Gulf States and India. The idea was that the time difference between the two could mean that solar power generated in the Gulf States could essentially extend the solar power generation day for India, allowing it to meet more of its growing demand from renewable energy sources. The modelling exercise looked at 75 different scenarios and found that the connector was part of the least costs ‘optimal’ power system in the majority (64) of the scenarios and that bi-directional trade between the two regions can contribute towards reducing costs and emissions across a range of scenarios. The surprising thing was that the modelling found that the net flow of electricity would be from India to the Gulf States from 2030 to 2050 and that the direction would only start to reverse from 2050 onwards.
If you could choose a topic for further research around energy and economic growth, what would it be?
EEG added to the growing literature on the economic impact of access to electricity. But the problem with this body of work as a whole (not just EEG’s contribution) is that there are many variables that affect whether access to electricity results in an economic impact at household or enterprise level – the reliability of the electricity supply, the cost of the tariff as a proportion of household income, the amount of electricity available (particularly important in off-grid supplies where total daily power is often very limited), the availability and cost of appliances that can turn electricity into productive work, the availability of credit to purchase such appliances, and the existence or not of a viable market for produce within reach. Studies tend to look at a small subset of these variables, often as a single snapshot in time and often quite soon after electricity access has been provided. I would like to see large-scale longitudinal studies looking at data across all of these variables, from multiple locations, over longer periods of multiple years to start to demonstrate how these different variables interact to support or prevent growth.
What do you think the Roundtable Initiative on Strategic Energy Planning has achieved? What are your hopes for the initiative now that CCG is the Secretariat?
The Secretariat has helped to develop a commitment across more than 20 important international actors as to how they should shape their support for strategic energy planning so as to ensure national ownership and the strengthening of national capabilities to manage long-term planning. In practical terms, an annex for contracts has been developed that would help national governments ensure that the Principles identified by the Roundtable are actually embedded in any contracts let for specialist donor funded support for energy modelling and planning exercises.
My hope is that the Secretariate under CCG will work to see these very practical ideas embedded as normal practice across all of the development partners/donors that signed up to the Roundtable Principles, and that national governments in receipt of such support are aware of the Roundtable Principles and are able to hold development partners/donors to account over their use.
Many of the research projects were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic – what were the greatest challenges and how were they overcome? What lessons have been learned?
The challenges were in many ways the same as everyone else faced during the pandemic. For long periods of time international travel remained untenable, preventing many of our north America- and Europe-based research institutions from being able to visit their national partners or their research project sites. Indeed, for periods of time travel within countries was also severely restricted, delaying many of our projects that were based on large-scale field studies. The UK economic situation meant that the British Government had to make difficult funding decisions, which led to budget reductions for EEG (and many other research programmes).
EEG had to adapt. We developed protocols for our projects to ensure COVID-safe operations. We and our partners learnt how to work remotely, not just in terms of communications between teams but in the way research was conducted – phone based surveys rather than house-to-house visits for example. Project timelines and budgets were adjusted, and some work had to be stopped to make room for the majority of projects to be completed. Work to promote the uptake of research findings also had to change, with face-to-face dissemination events being replaced by online webinars. Overall, a lot of ingenuity and hard work, combined with a genuine commitment ‘beyond the call of duty’ by our partners ensured that, despite all the challenges, EEG still produced a rich and substantial portfolio of research findings and impacts.