Supporting research on COVID-19 and energy

The DFID-funded Energy and Economic Growth (EEG) research programme is supporting research on COVID-19 and energy. Programme Director Simon Trace provides an overview of current activity.

The relationship between the COVID-19 pandemic and the energy sector is multidimensional. Hard-hit countries are seeing a sizeable decrease in demand for power, due to reduced global economic activity, and the economic impact could also affect countries’ energy development plans. Meanwhile, countries’ resilience to the pandemic may, in part, be dependent upon whether their power supplies are sufficient and reliable enough to provide adequate healthcare, deliver other critical services and support economies. Added to this, COVID-19 is likely to have a disproportionate effect on power markets in developing countries. A range of factors – from depleted maintenance teams to reduced electricity payments – will put already unstable and fragile energy systems under increased pressure, testing their resilience.

It’s therefore likely that COVID-19 will reveal new issues to consider in future approaches to energy system planning, operation and maintenance in developing countries – whether they relate to better understanding of the role reliable power plays in underpinning societies’ resilience to pandemics or the impact global health crises have on the resilience of power systems themselves.

Research on the relationship between COVID-19 and electricity and economic growth will be key – and EEG has quickly responded to the need for evidence by funding research, an online workshop and the production of several Energy Insights, detailed below.


Online workshop on impacts and coping mechanisms

An online workshop investigating the impacts and coping mechanisms for COVID-19 in Malawi’s energy sector is being organised by a team from Mzuzu University, Malawi.

The preventative measures put in place in the country (such as working from home, restricting the number of people in workplaces, social distancing and strict hygiene requirements) can increase operational costs across a number of business sectors and is causing businesses to stand still. The induced shutdowns bring complications to the supply chain management of traditional biomass, which contributes 89% of Malawi’s energy mix. It is therefore important to understand how the energy sector in Malawi is coping with the crisis and what lessons can be learnt for future energy systems management planning.

The workshop will examine the options for meeting energy needs in light of the dictates for preventing COVID-19, and will draw lessons for enhancing energy system resilience. Conducted via an online platform, the workshop will involve 22 participants from government ministries, utilities and energy companies, energy and construction regulators, a consumer association, civil society, professional bodies and development partners in Malawi.


Research on whether sustained and reliable electricity access provides resilience against COVID-19 impacts

Access to reliable electricity during the COVID-19 crisis will allow households and businesses to continue productive activities, operate machinery and stay up to date with accurate public health information, helping to counteract negative economic forces and slow the spread of the pandemic. But with stay-at-home orders and lockdown restrictions affecting incomes, it’s likely that many people in the world’s poorest communities will be unable to pay monthly electricity bills – meaning they miss out on potential benefits during this crucial time. Increased stress on the electricity grid, and reduced staffing for maintenance, may also cause increased power outages.

As an extension to the EEG-funded GridWatch project, a team from the University of California, Berkeley, is researching resilience to economic shocks through sustained and reliable electricity access.

The team will employ rapid low-cost phone and SMS surveying, leveraging its ongoing fieldwork in both Kenya and Ghana to generate a sample of more than 2,000 individuals with pre-paid meters, comprising a mix of homes and firms. They will then compare the value of electricity subsidies in rural regions of Kenya as well as in the urban area of Accra, Ghana. The team will monitor the impact of subsidies on those that are receiving them, and on their response to the crisis. They will also investigate issues related to infrastructure stress and increased power outages.


Research into the varying impacts of COVID-19 on communities with different levels of electricity access

A team from the Netherlands’ Wageningen University is investigating whether electricity access will help communities cope with COVID-19 in Sierra Leone. It will assess how the crisis and response measures are impacting residents, clinics and schools, and whether experiences vary across communities that have access to electricity and those that do not (for example, electrified communities could have more capacity to implement mitigation strategies).

Through its existing EEG research project, the team has collected detailed information for over 6,000 respondents in 108 communities across Sierra Leone (54 with access to electricity, and 54 without). The team will collect data via phone surveys as part of an umbrella project covering a larger sample across a longer time frame.         


Energy Insight on resilience of electricity grid systems to COVID-19 in South Asia

A team from the Asia Centre for Sustainable Development, Integrated Research and Action for Development (IRADe) in New Delhi is producing an Energy Insight on the impact of COVID-19 on electricity systems and a framework to make them resilient in BBIN countries (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal).

It will be based on desktop research, power system data analysis, expert interaction and stakeholder engagement. A macro-level rapid assessment of vulnerability and risk associated with electricity in BBIN countries will be undertaken; a broad-level estimation will be carried out on the extent of the impact of COVID-19 on electricity systems in BBIN countries; and BBIN countries’ response under COVID-19 conditions will be analysed. Based on the findings, comprehensive mitigation frameworks, strategies and protocols for protecting electricity systems under such situations will be suggested.


Energy Insight on the impact of COVID-19 on foreign energy investment and finance

Many Sub-Saharan African countries rely heavily on bilateral and/or multilateral investment and loans to develop and modernise their energy systems. But COVID-19 will have a fundamental impact on national energy development plans, project finance and implementations, and local communities and livelihoods. A team from the UK’s Institute of Development Studies (IDS) is creating an Energy Insight on the effect of COVID-19 on foreign energy investment and finance in sub-Saharan Africa.

The team will examine the impacts and opportunities, with close analysis of the change of policies and risk perceptions among policy makers, investors and financiers. Data will be collected from stakeholder interviews, combined with analysis of media coverage since the pandemic outbreak, with particular focus on existing energy projects and on-going negotiations. The paper will serve to enhance the preparedness from both African governments and investors on the impacts of COVID-19 and identify possible solutions for remedies, new directions and future energy transition pathways.


Energy Insight on tracking impacts of COVID-19 on electricity and pollution

A team from the University of Chicago is producing an Energy Insight on tracking contemporaneous and future COVID-19 impacts using high-frequency electricity and pollution data from India, where the costs imposed by the lockdown may be particularly high because of a large and economically vulnerable population with limited savings, often dependent on daily-wage labour in the informal sector.

The team will compile a rich dataset comprising information on electricity generation/consumption and pollution, which can be monitored continuously and are directly linked to economic activity across sectors. Because these measures can be spatially disaggregated, they also provide information on the degree of economic damage that different parts of the country may be enduring. This will be extremely useful for guiding interventions to provide economic support to businesses and households.


Energy Insight on last mile distributors of energy products

Last mile distributors (LMDs) are critical for accelerating the adoption of affordable, clean energy solutions for households and enterprises in developing countries. COVID-19 and the associated economic shocks have already presented enormous challenges for LMDs, and for many that are smaller and less prepared, there is a real risk they will close altogether. This means last mile consumers will find it even harder to secure the critical products that LMDs provide.

The Global Distributors Collective (GDC), a collective of 150 LMDs around the world, is producing an Energy Insight on LMDs and COVID-19. It will conduct a rapid analysis, covering key challenges, the impact of shocks on LMDs, the potential ripple effects of LMD closures on the wider energy system, and the ways in which LMDs can cope. Data will be collected from members – including through virtual workshops, bilateral calls and surveys – and from interviews with other sector stakeholders.

Alongside the above, we are currently commissioning applied research projects that explore the interdependencies between the resilience of populations and the resilience of power systems to large-scale health crises such as COVID-19, and that propose policy lessons for future energy system planning. Further information on the call for proposals can be found here.