Simon Trace interview

Simon Trace, EEG’s Programme Director, shares his thoughts on the relationship between COVID-19 and energy. He discusses the role electricity has played in developing countries’ response to the pandemic and the impact the crisis has had on the energy sector, as well as how EEG research has been affected and what new research projects into COVID-19 and energy aim to achieve.


How central a role has electricity played in developing countries’ ability to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Clearly, access to reliable supplies of electricity are critical in terms of maintaining health services to combat COVID-19 – including operating everything from testing services and ventilators to track and trace systems. In reality of course, many developing countries’ health systems are under huge stress. A recent survey of electricity access in health facilities in six countries (Cambodia, Myanmar, Nepal, Kenya, Ethiopia and Nigeria) showed that 25% of health clinics had no access to electricity at all, while only 28% reported access to a reliable supply.

We suspect that access to electricity at the household level is also important in terms of supporting resilience to COVID-19 (by, for example, increasing communication and access to information, and providing more opportunities for income-generating activities to counter economic shocks etc). EEG is sponsoring new research in Sierra Leone with the Netherlands’ Wageningen University to look at this in more detail.    


What impact has the pandemic had on the energy sector?

There have definitely been impacts on the finances of those supplying electricity (power producers and the utilities that distribute electricity to consumers and industry). The slump in demand as industry and commercial activities were shut down or severely curtailed has impacted revenue, and the payment holidays for consumers instigated by governments as a mitigation response to people being unable to work because of lockdowns has further exacerbated the situation. In addition, some power producers have ‘take or pay’ supply contracts, which essentially mean utilities have to pay for the power produced whether they use it or not. These financial stressors all come against a background of the vast majority of electricity utilities in Sub-Saharan Africa already running at a loss.

Lower revenue is not the only stress on power systems emanating from the COVID-19 crisis though. There are tricky technical rebalancing acts required when demand suddenly drops, and not all generation capacity can be switched on and off at short notice (we expect to publish an Energy Insight on how the South Asian grid network of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal managed to cope with this challenge shortly).   


How has COVID-19 affected EEG-funded research projects? What do you think the long-term impact on research uptake will be?

EEG research projects that involve more desk-based studies, or which had collected most of their field data prior to lockdown (and can therefore focus on analytical work), have fared the best in terms of being able to continue their work. Projects that had expected to be able to carry out large-scale data collection exercises with extensive face-to-face interaction in recent months have been most impacted. In some cases, teams have been able to adapt (a project in Bangladesh looking at the use of electricity in irrigation has been able to collect electricity meter readings from farmers by phone, for example), but in other cases activity has had to be postponed for the moment.


How has the EEG team adapted? Have you discovered new ways of working, and will they continue?

With research projects in nine different countries across South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, and research partners being based in Europe and North America, we were already a widely dispersed team, used to working virtually. Online working has notched up further, with most EEG and partner staff working from home – but experience-wise, we were already well-equipped to cope with this.

One area where we have seen quite a lot of adaptation is around meetings and training provision. For example, our work with the Climate Parliament has, in the past, brought legislators from a wide range of African and South Asia parliaments together with energy experts to help legislators understand and take action on issues such as green grids and the incorporation of large-scale renewable energy into power systems. These meetings previously extended over two days and were held face-to-face, but have now been converted into more frequent online meetings with smaller groups and shorter timespans. This seems to be working quite well and may be continued when current restrictions are lifted. We have also changed training courses run by our partners, for example one on power sector financing for government officials from Ethiopia and Zambia, to online events.


Could you tell us more about the COVID-19 research projects being funded by EEG? What do you hope the impact will be?

Our COVID-19 related research falls into two categories: a number of relatively quick short-term projects and two that are longer (one-year plus) and more in-depth.

The short-term projects are quick reviews of a variety of issues. Some have been looking at how the power sector has coped – for example, in Malawi we sponsored Mzuzu University to bring power sector stakeholders together in a workshop to understand the impact of the pandemic on the operation of the grid there, while we worked with our partner IRADe in Delhi to review how well power trade between India, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal operated in the face of a massive drop in demand. In East Africa, we have worked with Practical Action to look at the impact of the pandemic on small-scale suppliers of off-grid household solar equipment. Other short-term projects have been looking at the impacts of the pandemic on individuals – for example, our partner the University of California, Berkley has been exploring the impact that electricity subsidies in Ghana and Kenya (provided during lockdown to help households unable to work to maintain access to electricity) have had. Finally, one of our short-term projects is looking at the likely impact the pandemic will have on future foreign investment in new power supplies in Africa.

Of our two larger-scale research projects (the contracts for which are about to be signed), one will be looking in-depth at communities with and without electricity supplies in Sierra Leone to understand the difference electricity makes to resilience to COVID-19 and its economic effects, while the other will be looking at how utilities in Pakistan and Kyrgyzstan coped with the financial challenges arising from drops in demand.  

Our goal across all this research is to understand what needs to change in the planning of energy systems to enable them to perform better in the face of similar pandemic challenges in the future.


Do you think the pandemic will encourage governments to ‘build back better’, using low-carbon technologies to create more resilient and sustainable energy systems?

A recent review carried out by EEG found examples of rapid changes in energy support programmes for off-grid supplies to take account of COVID-19 and to look to renewables for the future. For example, a number of agencies (including UN SEforALL, the Clinton Foundation, the World Bank and the African Development Bank) are focusing on efforts to develop mini grids to power rural health facilities.

Perhaps because of their longer planning horizons and larger financing requirements, grid-scale initiatives specifically reacting to COVID-19 and the idea of building back better are more difficult to find right now. EEG’s review found that the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) have agreed to work together to support the Asia-Pacific region’s COVID-19 response through access to sustainable energy, but whether that leads to new investments is yet to be seen.