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Baker’s Project on Sustainability and Electricity Access in Developing Countries Featured in WUN Newsletter

Erin Baker

Erin Baker

Erin Baker – a professor in the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department, an associate dean in the College of Engineering, and director of the Wind Energy Fellows – was recently the subject of a May 4 article in the newsletter of the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN). The WUN article focused on a project led by Baker researching “Sustainability and Electricity Access in Developing Countries,” which is supported by WUN’s Research Development Fund.

Baker is a principal investigator for the international group of university researchers studying Sustainability and Electricity Access in Developing Countries. In addition to UMass Amherst, the project’s partner institutions are the University of Cape Town, University of Ghana, and University of Nairobi.

According to its website, “WUN is a leading global higher education and research network made up of 23 universities, spanning 13 countries on six continents. WUN brings together major universities that sit in widely diverse geographical and cultural contexts, and which in partnership provide an unparalleled richness of talent and resources that are brought to bear on major research problems.”

As researchers on the team studying Sustainability and Electricity Access in Developing Countries explained, “Our long-term objective is to establish the Sustainable Electricity Access Network for Africa (SEAFAN) and provide a process for stakeholder-informed modeling and decision frameworks to support solutions to sustainable electricity access across Sub-Saharan Africa.”

The project will develop an initial network of interdisciplinary researchers in and outside of Africa and develop research directions grounded in the multiple stakeholder groups affected by electricity access decisions.

The May 4 article in the WUN newsletter observed that universal access to “affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy” is the target set by UN Sustainable Development Goal 7. Typically, planning models have emphasized the first of those concerns: affordability.

“The classic way of modelling electrification is to minimize costs,” explained Baker. But consultations with electricity users have revealed a range of competing priorities, highlighting the need to integrate social benefits and trade-offs into planning models, according to the WUN article.

The WUN article noted that “In Ghana in 2017, 65% of the rural population had access to electricity, compared with 90% of the urban population, according to World Bank figures. But demand continues to outstrip supply and outages persist. Scholars in SEAFAN, supported by WUN seed funding, are developing new models to reflect the social trade-offs in decision-making on electrification.” 

These findings and others covered in the WUN article have major implications for modelling practices. As Baker wrote, “Instead of minimizing costs, there are other objectives, such as utility, reliability, safety. We want to build models that incorporate these other metrics and acknowledge that different groups may have different priorities.”

Baker concluded in the article that “WUN has been fantastic in building this network. Doing this initial stakeholder work helps us understand what the questions are, and seed funding has produced a whole series of different ideas for larger proposals, including expanded collaborations, various models, and empirical data to collect.” (July 2020)