NEWS How data-​​driven research partnerships deepen energy access across supply chains

For the Green­Biz arti­cle, click here.

Offgrid Box in the field

An unpacked “Box” in the field, pro­vid­ing power for water fil­tra­tion and clinic elec­tri­fi­ca­tion. Photo by Sam Miles



Access to reli­able, afford­able and clean energy is increas­ingly rec­og­nized as the “golden thread” tying together and enabling many other Sus­tain­able Devel­op­ment Goals (SDGs). Despite progress over the last decade in mak­ing solu­tions to energy poverty more acces­si­ble to the more than 800 mil­lion peo­ple cur­rently with­out elec­tric­ity (and the many more with inter­mit­tent or unaf­ford­able energy) many gaps remain. In par­tic­u­lar, the COVID-​​19 cri­sis has dis­rupted sup­ply and demand for energy, both of which are nec­es­sary to meet SDG 7.

At the same time, tran­si­tion­ing to more renew­able energy-​​based elec­tric­ity sys­tems requir­ing bat­tery stor­age, whether in emerg­ing mar­kets or devel­oped ones, will require mas­sive amounts of min­eral resources with sig­nif­i­cant human and envi­ron­men­tal foot­prints. A paper pub­lished by USAID in late 2021under­scores the urgency of address­ing min­ing in the con­text of the green energy transition:

Recent global stud­ies pre­dict demand increases of up to ten times cur­rent pro­duc­tion lev­els for min­er­als like cobalt, graphite, and lithium. No mat­ter the mix of alter­nate energy sources the world turns to, the min­ing sec­tor will be a key player in the years ahead.

To meet the ambi­tious goal of uni­ver­sal mod­ern energy by 2030 — while grap­pling with the con­se­quences of crit­i­cal min­er­als demand growth — har­mo­nized poli­cies, coor­di­nated invest­ment and inno­v­a­tive research are urgently needed. Equally or even more impor­tant, how­ever, are the under­stud­ied and under­sup­ported part­ner­ships that can cat­alyze and scale these efforts to make SDG7 both a life­line and a means of eco­nomic empow­er­ment and equity.

The Congo Power alliance rep­re­sents one such inno­v­a­tive coali­tion approach. Ini­tially launched by Google’s Sup­plier Respon­si­bil­ity team in 2017 to rein­force respon­si­ble min­er­als trade and expand eco­nomic oppor­tu­nity through clean energy, the ini­tia­tive sup­ports com­mu­ni­ties com­mit­ted to the respon­si­ble sourc­ing of min­er­als that are ubiq­ui­tous in elec­tron­ics and his­tor­i­cally tied to con­flict and human rights abuses. This min­eral trade focuses on tung­sten, tin, tan­ta­lum, gold and cobalt, mak­ing this issue par­tic­u­larly crit­i­cal in the African Great Lakes Region, where much of the world’s sup­ply of these min­er­als’ stock lies underground.

A graphic of the Africa Great Lakes region

The African Great Lakes region includes Angola, Burundi, Cen­tral African Repub­lic, Repub­lic of the Congo, Demo­c­ra­tic Repub­lic of the Congo, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Repub­lic of South Sudan, Sudan, Tan­za­nia and Zam­bia. Image cour­tesy of Google, USAID





As part of its over­ar­ch­ing sus­tain­abil­ity strat­egy, Google com­mit­ted to max­i­miz­ing our use of finite resources, which includes sup­port­ing in-​​region pro­grams that rein­force respon­si­ble sup­ply chains, and increas­ing the use of recy­cled mate­ri­als. These pro­gram com­mit­ments are also part of meet­ing the expec­ta­tions of Sec­tion 1502 of the Dodd-​​Frank Act, which man­date that all pub­licly traded com­pa­nies com­plete due dili­gence on their sup­ply chains, and report on those measures.

In line with these com­mit­ments, the Congo Power team has invested in 14 com­mu­nity projects since 2017 and has brought a broad group of stake­hold­ers along. On a Public-​​Private Alliance for Respon­si­ble Min­er­als Trade (PPA) del­e­ga­tion with the U.S. State Depart­ment in late 2019, for exam­ple, Google, Nokia, Intel, Apple, Global Advanced Met­als, USAID, U.S. Depart­ment of State, GiZ, the Respon­si­ble Busi­ness Alliance and RESOLVE vis­ited the Idjwi Island min­i­grid and spent time with the Panzi Foundation’s Denis Muk­wege dis­cussing the inter­sec­tion of human rights and respon­si­ble sourc­ing in the region.

As a result of that trip, the Congo Power team focused on build­ing a deeper rela­tion­ship with the Panzi Foun­da­tion and put com­mu­nity health clin­ics at the cen­ter of address­ing power, gen­der, energy equity along with rein­forc­ing respon­si­ble sup­ply chains. The team also con­tin­ues to expand col­lab­o­ra­tions with con­ser­va­tion areas such as Garamba National Park, which is deploy­ing clean power sys­tems to sup­port local eco­nomic activ­i­ties (both min­ing and non-​​mining) in ways that reduce threats to the park’s con­ser­va­tion and bio­di­ver­sity goals.

Four artisanal gold miners in the Democratic Republic of the Congo at a site visited by the Public-Private Alliance for Responsible Minerals Trade delegation in 2019.

Four arti­sanal gold min­ers in the Demo­c­ra­tic Repub­lic of the Congo at a site vis­ited by the Public-​​Private Alliance for Respon­si­ble Min­er­als Trade del­e­ga­tion in 2019. Photo Credit: Alyssa Newman





The program’s launch high­lighted the impor­tance of deep rela­tion­ships between devel­op­ment part­ners, con­sumer brands and NGOs with deep in-​​country oper­at­ing exper­tise, such as Give­Power and Resolve. This multi-​​sector approach is crit­i­cal for draw­ing in fur­ther “down­stream” con­glom­er­ates whose cus­tomers increas­ingly demand end prod­ucts made with respon­si­bly sourced materials.

This strat­egy has suc­cess­fully brought on some of the world’s largest man­u­fac­tur­ers to the alliance’s com­mit­ment to respon­si­ble sourc­ing. Intel has funded two addi­tional phases, and other part­ners are in the process of mak­ing fund­ing com­mit­ments. The alliance col­lab­o­rates with plat­forms such as Cobalt for Devel­op­ment (BMW, Sam­sung, BASF, GIZ, Volk­swa­gen, Good Shep­herd Inter­na­tional Foun­da­tion and oth­ers) and the Fair Cobalt Alliance(Tesla, Fair­fone, The Impact Facil­ity and oth­ers) to rein­force mutual objec­tives in respon­si­ble sourc­ing, and sup­port orga­ni­za­tions that are work­ing on the ground.

Beyond pub­lic and pri­vate part­ners, acad­e­mia plays an impor­tant role within this con­sor­tium. Through a col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Renew­able and Appro­pri­ate Energy Lab (RAEL) at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, the Congo Power ini­tia­tive explores how inno­v­a­tive energy solu­tions can improve liveli­hoods and resilience across com­mu­ni­ties in East and Cen­tral Africa. Pre­vi­ously funded research has explored the inter­sec­tion between energy poverty and con­flict, the evo­lu­tion of real-​​time mon­i­tor­ing of decen­tral­ized energy sys­tems, oper­at­ing mod­els for mini-​​grids in urban infor­mal set­tle­ments, the impact of solar-​​home-​​systems on energy, gen­der and social jus­tice, and frame­works for under­stand­ing com­mu­nity participation’s role in mini-​​grid projects.

This is just the begin­ning, how­ever. Many ques­tions remain for the RAEL/​Congo Power col­lab­o­ra­tion to uncover in improv­ing the deliv­ery of sus­tain­able and appro­pri­ate energy solu­tions across the var­i­ous sup­ply chains that con­sti­tute the lifeblood of vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties around the world.

Chief among the initiative’s research ambi­tions is devel­op­ing a deeper sense of how to make $1 of invest­ment in renew­able energy “go fur­ther.” Bench­mark impact met­rics for inno­v­a­tive energy projects are lack­ing in the empir­i­cal lit­er­a­ture, par­tic­u­larly for mini-​​grid tech­nolo­gies, increas­ingly rec­og­nized as the least-​​cost way to elec­trify hun­dreds of mil­lions of those with­out power. Devel­op­ing and doc­u­ment­ing enabling part­ner­ships also offers a key resource for nations, busi­nesses, multi­na­tional aid /​ devel­op­ment orga­ni­za­tions and civil soci­ety to inter­ro­gate poten­tial solu­tions and scale up win­ning con­cepts that can help meet goals set in the Paris Cli­mate Agree­ments and other SDGs.

Fun­da­men­tally, such a private-​​public-​​academic part­ner­ship boils down to explor­ing what kinds of impact — described both quan­ti­ta­tively and qual­i­ta­tively — dif­fer­ent energy deliv­ery mod­els can achieve across insti­tu­tional and geo­graph­i­cal scales. And beyond the eval­u­a­tion of impact: Which nar­ra­tives can most effec­tively com­mu­ni­cate these insights into action­able sup­port for promis­ing solu­tions and their developers?

Guided by such aca­d­e­mic research ques­tions, these part­ner­ships are able to fund imple­men­ta­tion part­ners as well. Nuru, Equa­to­r­ial Power and Off­Grid­Box are three such part­ners in East and Cen­tral Africa, whose oper­a­tions are pro­vid­ing crit­i­cal insights into key techno-​​economic and oper­a­tional chal­lenges to scal­ing energy access.

These orga­ni­za­tions have a wide and diverse foot­print. Nuru builds and oper­ates mini-​​grids across remote, rural, and urban areas of the Demo­c­ra­tic Repub­lic of the Congo (DRC). Their prin­ci­pal instal­la­tion is one of the largest mini-​​grids in Africa, sup­ply­ing more than 1,800 cus­tomers through a 1.3 megawatt solar-​​hybrid instal­la­tion in peri-​​urban neigh­bor­hoods in Goma, DRC. Congo Power sup­ported Equa­to­r­ial Power’s very first instal­la­tion mini-​​grid, a 20 kilowatt-​​peak (kWp) instal­la­tion on Idjwi Island on Lake Kivu (sep­a­rat­ing the DRC and Rwanda) sup­ply­ing over 300 con­nec­tions, includ­ing sev­eral small-​​to-​​medium enter­prises. Off­Grid­Box has deployed one of its 3.4 kWp con­tainer­ized power and water instal­la­tions in Walikale (a min­ing cen­ter in east­ern DRC), with more than 80 iden­ti­cal such deploy­ments around the world.

OffGridBoxes (“Boxes”) ready for deployment at the Rwandan headquarters.

Off­Grid­Boxes (“Boxes”) ready for deploy­ment at the Rwan­dan head­quar­ters. Photo by Sam Miles





To gain deep yet broad insights into the chal­lenge of strength­en­ing the “golden thread,” RAEL researchers within the Congo Power alliance aim to be both method­i­cal yet prac­ti­cal in devel­op­ing research themes from these ini­tial project foci — par­tic­u­larly impor­tant given the chal­lenges of doing in-​​person research through a pandemic.

One theme that con­sis­tently emerges through and across such projects is the impor­tance of “pro­duc­tive” uses of elec­tric­ity — most sim­ply defined as the abil­ity of elec­tric­ity users to gen­er­ate addi­tional income on the basis of improved energy access. When, where and how are infor­mal arti­sans, entre­pre­neurs and labor­ers able to con­vert renew­able elec­tric­ity into improved eco­nomic out­comes for them­selves, their home­steads and their com­mu­ni­ties? These ques­tions have proven par­tic­u­larly chal­leng­ing to answer, despite over two decades of schol­ar­ship describ­ing pro­duc­tive uses of elec­tric­ity as a cor­ner­stone under­pin­ning the finan­cial sus­tain­abil­ity, and thus scal­a­bil­ity, of energy access solu­tions with high upfront invest­ment costs and low margins.

RAEL researchers have brought novel eval­u­a­tion approaches to tackle this prob­lem, includ­ing live-​​monitoring of elec­tric­ity con­sump­tion of pro­duc­tive use pilots across the region, geospa­tial and remote sens­ing tech­niques lever­ag­ing satel­lite imagery and machine learn­ing, as well as pilot­ing new power qual­ity and reli­a­bil­ity mea­sure­ment method­olo­gies for eval­u­at­ing the state of elec­tric­ity for health ser­vices, includ­ing cold stor­age, through col­lab­o­ra­tions with infrastructure-​​monitoring startup nLine.

Many impor­tant ques­tions beyond how to cat­alyze income gen­er­at­ing uses of elec­tric­ity remain, how­ever. Does street light­ing reduce crime in remote vil­lages or rapidly urban­iz­ing envi­ron­ments? Can decen­tral­ized energy solu­tions bridge the gaps in Africa’s vac­cine cold chains? How can project fun­ders best col­lab­o­rate with pri­vate sec­tor imple­menters, NGOs, and pol­i­cy­mak­ers to opti­mize the impacts of a given energy project, tar­get­ing out­comes as dis­parate as sup­ply chain trace­abil­ity, pro­duc­tive end uses, con­ser­va­tion or women’s empowerment?

Public street lighting provided by Nuru in a community near Garamba National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo.
Pub­lic street light­ing pro­vided by Nuru in a com­mu­nity near Garamba National Park, Demo­c­ra­tic Repub­lic of Congo. Photo by Esther Nsapu 

These and many other research ques­tions will guide RAEL researchers as the Congo Power ini­tia­tive con­tin­ues to gain momen­tum and part­ners. A much wider con­sor­tium of part­ners, how­ever, is still needed to con­front the mag­ni­tude of the chal­lenges ahead, and data-​​driven research is crit­i­cal to har­ness the dis­parate per­spec­tives, resources and objec­tives such a big tent approach entails.

For cor­po­rate sus­tain­abil­ity pro­fes­sion­als, join­ing coali­tions such as Congo Power is one way to con­nect many dis­tinct pieces of the chal­lenges that lie ahead: con­fronting cli­mate change by sup­port­ing cleaner energy pro­duc­tion in com­mu­ni­ties at the very start of their sup­ply chains, tack­ling the human rights impli­ca­tions of expo­nen­tial demand growth for min­er­als required for elec­tron­ics infra­struc­ture includ­ing renew­able energy equip­ment and bat­tery stor­age tech­nolo­gies, and ensur­ing the equi­table dis­tri­b­u­tion of poten­tial ben­e­fits from the global energy tran­si­tion are dis­trib­uted equi­tably. No one com­pany or orga­ni­za­tion can move the nee­dle on their own, but it is increas­ingly clear that share­hold­ers, con­sumers, employ­ees and reg­u­la­tors are plac­ing greater respon­si­bil­ity on global brands to step up to the challenge.

Part­ner­ships such as Congo Power pro­vide a clear path­way for private-​​public part­ner­ships to explore and sup­port cutting-​​edge projects, tech­nolo­gies and infra­struc­tures, guided by the most recent empir­i­cal evi­dence of impact. With rig­or­ous, inter­sec­tional and action­able research guid­ing such a pow­er­ful coali­tion of com­mit­ted part­ners, a truly just energy tran­si­tion is possible.

Editor’s note: Ser­ena Patel (MIT), Hilary Yu, Joyce­line Mare­alle (both UC Berke­ley) and Alyssa New­man (Google and UC Berke­ley) also con­tributed to this article.

Author Biog­ra­phy Links:


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