By Alexandra Wall, Director of Operations and Impact at nLine
In nLine’s inaugural blog post, Founder and CEO Noah Klugman reflects on our origin story, mission, and core product and services.
This second post dives deeper to share what nLine is up to on the ground. Since forming as a company in 2019, it’s been a whirlwind journey starting with an initial pilot project in Accra, Ghana, scaling that project to a city-wide deployment, and expanding our work with new partnerships in Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sierra Leone.
We work in resource-constrained contexts where there is limited digitization of grid infrastructure and where information about the grid is sparse and/or inaccurate, especially at the low-voltage level.
Our day-to-day work is done with the end goals of improving the experience for:
- Households and businesses that have access to electricity but do not have access to reliable electricity. We aim to support reducing the extent to which power outages are a daily, weekly or monthly part of customers’ lives, and improve the quality of the electricity they receive from the grid.
- Households and businesses that do not yet have access to electricity. We aim to ensure that planned access projects are designed to ensure a high quality and reliable power supply.
The concept of reliability has been described as ‘the degree to which the performance of the elements of the system result in power being delivered to customers within accepted standards and in the amount desired’. — Ghana National Electricity Grid Code (2009)
Societies in high-income countries depend on electric power for virtually all individual, household, commercial, industrial, and government activities. This is increasingly becoming the case in low and middle-income countries too, where levels of electricity access have risen as governments and donors actively make progress towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal #7: Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy.
One consequence of living in increasingly electrified societies is that when periods of poor electricity quality or reliability occur, economic and social welfare are severely impacted.
One of the key challenges to improving not only electricity access but also electricity reliability are data gaps and data quality. Frequently, data at the low-voltage distribution level — think household or individual business level — is not available to utilities, regulators, or investors. Even if power quality information is available at this spatial resolution, it often is not updated regularly enough for stakeholders to manage and monitor the progress of complex, continuously changing infrastructure systems such as power grids.
Expanding access to power has tradeoffs with the quality of power if we’re not also looking at improving reliability. — MCC Shares the Importance of Grid Reliability (2020)
At nLine, we recognize the importance of reliability in realizing the benefits of electricity for personal and productive use. We also believe that insights derived from data can improve situational awareness; for example, by informing the design, operation, and monitoring of infrastructure. That is why nLine is working to provide granular, reliable, and timely data on power quality and reliability.
We deploy plug-in sensors (“PowerWatch”) at households and small businesses to collect data on distribution level reliability by measuring the frequency of power outages (SAIFI), duration of power outages (SAIDI), and grid voltage quality. These key performance indicators (KPIs) are important for establishing the current state of service and infrastructure reliability, improving customer experience, and ensuring a standard of service that is in compliance with local regulations.
“Exactly how many hours of outages did your household experience over the past month?” As you may guess, it’s not easy for a respondent to precisely answer this question. It’s also not easy for the utility to answer this question. Why? Because measuring reliability is difficult. — MCC Shares the Importance of Grid Reliability (2020)
Monitoring the quality and reliability of electric power is just one half of our mission. The other half focuses on improving power quality and reliability by providing this vital data to key decision-makers in energy planning and electricity distribution (e.g. utilities, regulators, policymakers, donors, private investors, and research institutions).
Sensor measurements can provide the data that decision-makers need to act. For example, PowerWatch data can assist:
- Utilities seeking to more quickly address distribution failures and plan improvements in their distribution network.
- Regulatory agencies seeking a data source independent from the entities they regulate.
- Policy makers developing projects and initiatives that will address the constraints to the supply of adequate and reliable power.
- Donors and investors deciding how to best channel energy-improvement investments, and looking to track the performance of these projects, ranging from investments in grid-distribution infrastructure and service quality to scaling distributed renewable energy solutions.
In Ghana, electrification rates are an estimated 90% in urban areas and 65% in rural areas — well above average rates in Sub-Saharan Africa. The primary issue isn’t lack of access to electricity but rather the reliability of that electricity.
In 2018, we piloted 362 sensors in households and small businesses and surveyed nearly 3,000 participants with the goals of improving energy reliability data quality, exploring impacts of reliability, and developing a reliability measurement methodology independent of the utility.
Impressed by the results of the pilot, Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) invested in a scale-up. We’re now in the midst of managing and monitoring 1,300+ sensors for MCC’s Ghana Power Compact, which supports the Ghanaian government’s goal of increasing electricity access and reliability.
Data from PowerWatch sensors deployed across several districts in Accra are being used to measure Compact outcomes, including the frequency (SAIFI) and duration (SAIDI) of outages, and voltage level fluctuations. A team of university researchers is also using nLine sensor data to aid in evaluating the socioeconomic impacts of improvements in these outcomes due to the Compact. nLine will provide PowerWatch data through 2023 for endline analysis of the Compact, and is exploring ways to transition the sensors to provide data for Ghana’s energy regulators and/or utilities.
Kenya’s Last Mile Connectivity Project (LMCP) is a nationwide effort to provide increased electricity access by expanding the distribution network to rural and low-income areas. A team of university economists are currently studying the channels affecting weak contract governance and oversight, and technical construction quality of the LMCP.
nLine sensor data is among a handful of data sources being used to determine what set of contracting policies or monitoring schemes can best improve the quality of electricity infrastructure construction. We have deployed 100 PowerWatch sensors to LMCP communities across five counties in Western Kenya to provide insights on the correlation between construction quality and power quality.
PowerWatch data will provide more confident estimates on whether differences in construction quality reduce local power outages and increase power reliability. Our work in Kenya also provides the opportunity to verify that the sensor functions in areas with sparser cellular coverage and longer power outage durations.
Since June 2021, we have deployed sensors in 400 homes (each sensor is installed for two months and then collected and installed in a new home) and are starting to gather preliminary insights on voltage quality levels (check out the webinar here!).
In Nigeria, an estimated 80.1 million people are without access to electricity. The Rural Electrification Agency (REA) is exploring alternative ways of meeting the electricity needs of the Nigerian population through mini-grids and stand-alone off-grid solutions.
As part of this endeavor, the e-Guide Initiative, a consortium of universities led by the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, is working closely in support of the Nigerian Electrification Project (NEP) to help develop a framework to facilitate rural electrification.
The e-Guide Initiative is using data and analytics to improve electricity system planning and operation. To that end, 150 PowerWatch sensors will be deployed in early 2022 in 70+ markets across Northern and Southern Nigeria to provide critical ground truth measurement data on baseline grid performance and power reliability, and help establish the requirements of supplemental power sources in these markets.
Adequate healthcare provisioning depends heavily on affordable and reliable electricity at healthcare facilities. Cold chain resilience for storing medicines and vaccines is critical, especially in the context of COVID-19 vaccine distributions in Sub-Saharan Africa. Limited energy data makes it hard to compare power reliability between healthcare clinics supplied by different energy systems, which hinders healthcare professionals from unpacking the challenges of powering healthcare facilities and identifying cold chain vulnerabilities.
Beginning in August 2021, nLine provided UC Berkeley RAEL researchers with PowerWatch sensors to instrument a handful of health clinics across several districts in Rwanda and the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to gather initial power reliability insights for clinics that are electrified by the grid or a stand-alone system (a small renewable energy system that is not connected to the electricity grid).
Building on this pilot feasibility study, a 2021 CITRIS Seed Award was granted to analyze how distributed energy systems support vaccine cold chain resilience and to pin-point where power vulnerabilities should be addressed. In 2022, nLine sensors will be installed at additional health clinics in Rwanda and eastern DRC to build a deeper understanding of the quality and reliability of electricity at health clinics. With a focus on clinics powered by grid-alternatives, this project aims to help electricity planners to better design infrastructure deployments, and health sector professionals to identify cold chain vulnerabilities.
In early 2022 we will deploy a pilot of PowerWatch devices across the capital Freetown to gather baseline power reliability measurements that are of key interest to stakeholders. This pilot will allow us to continue to test and refine our technology in a new urban context and allow us to gather and share granular measurements to inform where sensors should be placed in a potential scale-up.
We hope to scale the deployment in Freetown to explore various topics including whether timely voltage and outage data can help utilities restore power faster and how PowerWatch baseline measurements can inform the design of large-scale grid infrastructure investments. We believe this baseline energy reliability information will be of value as investors, such as Millennium Challenge Corporation, begin planning for the upcoming Sierra Leone Proposed Power Compact.
We are actively seeking new partnerships to equip energy decision makers with sound data needed to make decisions around energy planning, distribution-level infrastructure investments, and grid maintenance and operations.
Interested in learning more or partnering with us? Reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and visit our website.