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Columbia Energy Exchange

Taking Into Context Africa’s Energy, Climate and Economic Needs


Dr. Destenie Nock

Assistant Professor at Carnegie Mellon University


Bill Loveless [00:00:07] The spotlight is on Africa this week at COP 27, the U.N. climate change conference taking place in Egypt this year. Climate induced disasters have ravaged the continent. Cyclones and flooding in the south. And a four year drought in the east have crippled food supplies, increased human suffering and hurt economic growth. And hundreds of millions of Africans still live in energy poverty. With pressure from developed nations to cut emissions at global climate talks. African leaders are hoping to secure billions of dollars to invest in the transition away from fossil fuels and build new energy infrastructure. But securing financing to build renewable energy projects is not enough. For the first time in its history, the COP agenda includes loss and damage funds. These are reparations that industrialized countries pay to developing countries which have suffered the most from climate change. What will it take to bring about meaningful energy transitions in Africa? And do the energy developments underway? Give us some insight on what’s possible. This is Columbia Energy Exchange, a weekly podcast from the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. I’m Bill Loveless. Today on the show, Dr. Destiny Nock Destiny is an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University, where she teaches civil and environmental engineering, as well as engineering and public policy. She is currently a visiting faculty member here at Columbia. Destiny is the director of the Energy Equity and Sustainability Group, where she leads a team of researchers at the intersection of social justice, energy analysis and systems modeling. She recently coauthored a report about energy poverty in Africa in the journal Nature titled Africa Needs Context Relevant Evidence to Shape Its Clean Energy Future. I spoke with Destiny about her research and the nuanced energy and climate needs of African nations. We also discussed loss and damage and the previously unfulfilled promises from wealthy countries to fund climate mitigation projects. And now here’s our conversation. Destiny. NOK, welcome to Columbia Energy Exchange. 

Destenie Nock [00:02:28] Thank you so much for having me. 

Bill Loveless [00:02:29] Well, I’ve been looking forward to this conversation, having read some of your work and, and, and all interested in yourself as well. I’d like to start shows by asking people to tell us a little bit about yourself. Your expertise is an interesting combination of engineering and public policy. So tell us a little bit about your background, your schooling and the research that’s brought you to where you are today. 

Destenie Nock [00:02:57] Awesome. So I am from Maryland and I did my undergrad in electrical engineering and applied mathematics at North Carolina State University. And from there I actually went overseas and did a master’s of leadership for Sustainable development at Queen’s University of Belfast. And I think that that was really great at giving me like this broader perspective about like energy systems outside the United States. Before that, during my undergrad, I had done a study abroad in Malawi and kind of like looked at like energy deficits and like the challenges to living without, you know, reliable sources of energy. And then in Ireland, I got to see more in like how Europe thinks about sustainable development, which is so different than the United States. And so then I came back to my Ph.D. and the United States in energy system planning and kind of got to bridge this world of like electrical engineering, sustainable development. How can we use models to do that? And now I work on using those models for sustainability, but also for energy justice. 

Bill Loveless [00:04:04] And you’re an entrepreneur as well, as I understand, having started the Carnegie Mellon spinoff called People’s Energy Analytics, that helps utility companies identify who is at risk of suffering from energy poverty and uses data from smart meters to provide some scalable, as you put it, solutions to achieving energy justice. Tell us about that. 

Destenie Nock [00:04:31] Yes. So that startup is, you know, a part of that desire to understand and better evaluate social impact and using like data in an objective quantitative way to measure like how much better did someone’s life get from like using energy? And because there are many different ways that we can measure poverty, energy usage, energy consumption, how is it feeling? How are people behaving right when we give them electricity access or more reliable services or, you know, in the US we are giving them energy assistance, right? How does that actually change how they are behaving? And when we were doing research, we actually found that low income groups were waiting seven degrees longer than high income groups just to start using their air conditioners. And in the winter, sometimes they’re actually having to start heating their homes nine degrees earlier than high income groups just because of the insulation issues. And so that that research and seeing how you know, that impacted people’s wellbeing in the home is what really inspired us to do the spin out of like, okay, we can do this on a bigger scale of like helping utilities, helping public utility commissions, helping policy organizations and non-profits actually use widely available energy data to better understand who is not able to consume enough energy in the home or the value of different energy efficiency investments. So that’s been something that I will say is like super exciting because it’s like, I don’t want to just be the academic that publishes the paper and then doesn’t help the people. Right. I mean, for me, all my research is about trying to get what the people, what how do they interact? Like what’s their behavior, How do engineered systems impact those people? So that’s like pretty exciting. I feel really fortunate to like at the beginning of my career during the pandemic, I actually got asked by another startup company, Deb Stream, to be their chief sustainability officer, to kind of contract with them and to help them think about how to invest in like different electrification, renewable energy to help reduce carbon in the world. So getting to work with them and I still work with them, that gave me like this dive into the way that industry thinks, the way that startups think. And I mean the team’s great, you know, so and then that kind of like when I talk to them about what I wanted to do, they were like, You should make that a business, right? And sometimes it is like having somebody that’s excited, that’s like, You can do this, you could be successful, This is meaningful. Like you can, you know, do good in the world while also like being true to yourself. You don’t have to be this startup that is just about making money, right? You can do an energy, just a startup. So. So I get really excited talking about it. 

Bill Loveless [00:07:32] Yeah, I can hear it. What? What a great stock you’ve gotten off to in your in your just still relatively young career. It’s it’s really impressive. You know, so often we talk about these issues in broad terms without exploring what they mean specifically, you know, energy, justice, for example. You do you take, as you’ve just described, a much more granular look at that at them. And you do so not only in the United States but also in Africa. And it would seem these are very different types of studies, are they not? 

Destenie Nock [00:08:07] Yeah, they are. And I mean, I think that my life experience can inform a bit of how I approach each. So when I was in Malawi and then later when I went to visit Ghana, it was really like reliability, power grid management type issue. Like Malawi was the first time where I got a government like instituted blackout where they were just like, We just don’t have enough generation, so we’re going to cut power to your city. Right. And we just had to deal with it. We didn’t know how long it was going to last. Right. It’s hard to make a business that is dependent on electricity when, you know, you’re just like, okay, well, it’s just not reliable. I just don’t know when it’s going to come. And so then a lot of my research in sub-Saharan Africa is about planning objectives, like what do we want to use energy for? Like, where are the roadblocks in terms of the policies and the development of the like rollout of infrastructure? And then on the US side, my life experience has been more aware. Like in grad school I had this point where like something happened with my check and I was supposed to get a scholarship, but I didn’t. So I got this, I think, unique experience and opportunity to understand what it’s like for someone living on minimum wage. Right. I think most grad students don’t realize that grad students actually make double the minimum wage. Right. And so my check got cut in half. And I was in our old home in Massachusetts. It was on oil heating. And we were keeping our heat on 55 degrees in the winter because that was the lowest temperature we could keep it on without freezing our pipes. Right. And then so I was like for like a month ish. And then we got a disconnection because we just could not afford to pay for our oil and our electricity. So we were like, well, we don’t want the pipes to freeze, will pay the oil bill, and then we’ll like pay the electricity bill next month. But, you know, the issue is that you go deeper and deeper into debt. It’s harder and harder to pay that bill, but then we get disconnected and you don’t think, well, yeah, okay, I paid my oil, but without electricity, my heat doesn’t work and my house becomes a giant tent anyway. So I should have paid the electricity bill. Right. And so then my research in the U.S. now has really been focused on like, how can we recognize who is not using their systems when they should be. Everybody has it, but some people can’t afford to use it. And sometimes that looks like, okay, this person spending more than 10% of their income on their bills. But there are other people you know, I think one thing I will say is I think we don’t give poor people enough credit for how smart they are because they will adapt. Right. People are really smart, adapting. So if they feel like they can’t afford it, they will do everything in their power to try to afford it. Right? They will keep their heat off. They will try to heat their house with their oven or a space heater or a fire in their house. Right. And then we need to recognize those people. So who’s not using energy when we would expect them to? Right. And that can be a hidden form of poverty. 

Bill Loveless [00:11:25] Yeah. And so you’re taking first you have this personal experience, which obviously made a deep impression on you at the time. But you’re looking at these experiences of others today who struggle with balancing the budget and trying to keep themselves and their families warm and their homes appropriately lit and this sort of thing. And it sounds as though you’re putting this in measurable terms now so that the utilities and others can actually have some measurable devices, so to speak, to try to gauge the energy poverty that’s taking place and perhaps measure the response that the utilities and others the government are taking to try to resolve those situations. 

Destenie Nock [00:12:19] Yeah, that’s exactly what we’re doing. I think one of my big. Challenges for myself that I pushed myself in both my business and in my research is how do we come up with a way to measure social progress and social impact? Right. There’s a lot of people out there that will say, I created this thing and everybody benefits, right? And my question is, how much do they benefit and who exactly benefited and how can I measure the benefit? And that’s what I work on. So I do that a lot. And electricity element as well in transportation Now. 

Bill Loveless [00:12:54] Interesting. I want to talk more about some of this research, but that you and others have done on the energy and climate needs. But in the US. But but but also in the global South and particularly in Africa, because right now we’re in the early days of the COP 27 meeting in Egypt and where these issues global poverty, the energy poverty that’s taking place there is very much on the agenda. Just interested in what and then your impressions so far of what is taking place at that meeting in Egypt? 

Destenie Nock [00:13:32] Yes, I actually was very fortunate to be able to be in a hybrid panel on Beyond the models from improbable scenarios to resilience systems. And in that one, we were trying to focus on how can we integrate and add people into these models, How can we actually get these from like high level, how do we decarbonize scenarios to actual practice? Because I think that one of the big talking points at COP has been like, how do we actually get people to adhere to the targets that they’re setting, right? Like, okay, these targets are great, but what are we going to do to actually get there? And so, like one of the events that I was excited about to see and read about was the one that highlighted the power of climate finance and adaptation in Africa that one of the speakers were emphasizing like financial flows that remain like inadequate and that effective climate action really requires investment from both public and private sectors. Right. And I think that we’re getting to this like who pays for the transition, right? And when you’re trying to basically help people that don’t have electricity or, you know, have energy is really expensive, we need to think about the mechanisms for getting this on the ground and then actually deploying these technologies and allowing people to reap the benefits of, you know, renewed investment in businesses and, you know, more advanced manufacturing and and things like that. So that’s something that’s really exciting to me, thinking about and talking about how do we actually make these things work in practice as opposed to just keeping it always at the big high level. 

Bill Loveless [00:15:28] You know, and the investment in infrastructure that’s needed. And in Africa, in the global South, of course, is just an ongoing huge topic and very much so at this current meeting. And a lot of the talk is also about what is collectively known as loss and damage, that is compensation for irreversible impacts of climate change that are taking place already. Never mind what’s what needs to be done in future for adaptation or mitigation at this year’s meeting is, as I’m sure you’ve seen for the first time, funding arrangements for loss and damage are included on the formal agenda, and that is despite what had been long standing objections from the United States and the European Union. It’s a big issue, isn’t it? 

Destenie Nock [00:16:16] Yeah, I think it’s a huge issue and I think that it also speaks to this, I would say, undercurrent of we’re not going to deal with the hypocrisy anymore, kind of going underneath some of these conversations where when I’ve talked to African stakeholders, leaders, scholars, you know, they’re like looking at these developed countries of like, well, you guys got to use a lot of these baseload technologies to allow yourself these stable industries that can develop you economically. That way you can invest in R&D, in batteries and solar and wind and really feed feeds like your development. And we want to do that too. And I think that, you know, one of the things that we kind of missed sometimes with the climate plan is that a lot of times like people don’t just switch out of the goodness of their heart, right? Like they want to do it. And a lot of people do. And I’ve been to Ghana. People are like, yeah, we don’t want to use coal. We don’t want to deal with the health issues that you all are dealing with, right? But we also want to feed our families. We. Want to have reliable, stable businesses. And I think that that is something that I’m excited about in this co-op. Like when in one of the side panels the I’m going to press the same wrong, but in goes the Okonjo Iweala there, the director general for the World Trade Organization. And they were underscoring that like if you have all the finance in the world, but you don’t have any trade policies, you’re still not going to get anywhere. Right. And when I was in Ghana, they were talking about how cars were not manufactured in Ghana. They had to import all their cars and they wanted to be able to use materials to create manufacturing jobs in the country. And so I think that that’s something that is also a part of this transition. We want environmentally sustainable policies. We want, you know, socially sustainable policies. And so I think that that has become integrated in some of these discussions. 

Bill Loveless [00:18:25] You know, and on that loss and damage, you know, the the U.S. is you know, there’s been some talk now of the from the United States, from John Kerry, the United States climate official, of actually putting together some sort of a mechanism for providing. Well, I guess this was talking I’m sorry, not a loss and damage. I think this was more on the terms of the pledge that nations have made and developed nations have made, but haven’t followed through on to provide funding for adaptation and mitigation going forward. And and there’s been talk of by Kerry of trying to set up some sort of a mechanism that would rely on, you know, philanthropy and other means to put together the hundreds of billions of dollars, ultimately hundreds of billions of dollars will be necessary to bring about those changes in Africa. 

Destenie Nock [00:19:18] Yeah. And I think that like like even like Google, I think was like getting in there to commit to supporting, like the digital transformation. Right. In in the continent of Africa. And I think that that’s something that can, you know, really revolutionize like how these systems are run and managed because I mean, it is like sometimes for energy management, there are people that are like, okay, I see on the screen that we are, you know, about to go overboard and we’re not going to be reliable. So just cut power here, here and here. Right. And maybe a part of the digital solution, right? Could be integrating more technologies of like that can monitor and, you know, reduce loads more demand response, right. In this energy transition. And that can also help with the management piece while we are developing energy systems to be more sustainable. Because when you have wind and solar and other renewables, if you don’t have a flexible demand, then you also will have an unstable grid. And I think that like this, you know, the international leaders recommitting to their investment, I think like one of the side events they saw was like empowering a climate resilient Africa for the 21st century. Right. And I think that, you know, having this broader view, this open, more open view about we don’t have to do it the way we’ve always done it, but we’re also not going to limit it to just these two generation types. We need more technology is we need to have a suite of technologies and not just renewable supply, but maybe flexible demand. You know, maybe we need to focus instead of just doing light bulbs, right. We’re going to do more small businesses, right. And financing and and things like that. 

Bill Loveless [00:21:12] In any discussion we have these days, the Ukraine war comes up. And what how has that influenced the discussion or even the the planning for when it comes to, say, Africa’s energy needs and and its energy security as well as it’s decarbonization? 

Destenie Nock [00:21:35] Well, I think that the yeah, how war affects like anything I feel like it really puts like another light on the need for us to not forget who is like who needs help and how. Like nations need to try to, like, make sure that people aren’t being, I guess like victimized taken advantage of like, you know, trapped in positions and and also just highlights like the humanitarian nature that like the humanitarian I guess, need in the world right now for protections for just people in general. To me, it’s yeah, it’s kind of hard to say exactly how people like different leaders will use this information. Maybe that’s also like a part of like, I’m not in person listening to like, the side conversations, but when I definitely feel like more people are like kind of like pushing Russia out of the talks, right? I mean, it’s yeah, it’s devastating what’s happening in Ukraine. And also it’s fueling a lot more like economic insecurity around the world. Right. And so I think that people are wanting and leaders are wanting more economic stability within their country because trade is great. But also you kind of I, I guess it’s actually been happening for a while now that like people are like in country, like, you know, we had, you know, the U.K. pull out. You know, then the U.S. has been like America first. Right. And so now I think with war, people are like, oh, I want to protect my own, because all these international things are happening and I want to make sure that no matter what my country has got. And so I think that that can, like, make it harder to set up more trade policies at times, too. 

Bill Loveless [00:23:37] Right. And one of the developments has taken place along these lines is, you know, as energy security becomes a greater priority in Europe for good reason. Right. As they try to find alternatives to Russian energy, they they’re they are counting on new projects elsewhere, including in Africa. I was reading a op ed or a column in The Washington Post today by Muhammadu Buhari, who’s the president of Nigeria, and he said, in the wake of the Ukraine war, there has been a resurgence of interest in Africa’s natural gas. But this impulse is coming from Western companies backed by their governments, who are interested only in extracting these resources and then exporting them to Europe. I mean, do you think there’s perhaps some mixed messages are taking place now in terms of Africa needs to decarbonize, but Africa has natural gas as well. We know that gas can help out places like Europe right now. 

Destenie Nock [00:24:38] Yeah, And I think that also I mean, the thing that you harped on at the end, right, the exporting it to Europe, right. When Africa needs to develop their own country’s energy infrastructure, I think that that’s a part of the some people have been, you know, calling out that hypocrisy of, you know, you’re taking our resources, telling us not to use them and then using them in your own country. Right. And I feel like. The need to invest in renewable energy and resilient infrastructure. There is an urgency of that right as we are adapting to climate change. But the damages that you have from all this legacy generation in Europe, in the United States, and now Africa is like, well, we can just use our own resources to develop ourselves. I think that that’s going to have a big push in the future, especially because you just from what I’ve been hearing of stakeholders like, they’re like, well, we’re not going to deplete ourselves, right, to keep fueling everyone else. 

Bill Loveless [00:25:43] Right? That gas is valuable. And as for energy security purposes in Africa, and there’s plenty of it in places like Nigeria and Mozambique and and elsewhere, you know, I was reading a paper by you and a number of other scholars, most of them African, that was published in the journal Nature that observed that debates about energy. Africa’s energy future have been heated, often shaped by geopolitical interests, but detached from specific and climate and development realities that these countries face on the ground. You kind of touched on this earlier in our conversation, but let’s talk more about that. What what do you mean by that and what what’s been missing? 

Destenie Nock [00:26:30] I think that one of the I guess when the authors and I work on this paper, one thing that we were really cognizant of is that a challenge when talking about development in the continent is that sometimes people forget that it is a continent made of many countries. Right. Like it’s like, Oh yeah, we want to develop Africa. And you’re like, okay, like there are a lot of countries in there and all of them have different, you know, political landscape starting points, different current infrastructure, different resource accessibility. And so that was one thing that we really wanted to highlight in this paper. So for example, one thing that we kind of pointed out in the paper about solar is that the cost of deploying solar is different in different countries. So there’s a lot of models out there that sometimes assume that solar. In one country you can just use that cost and model it in another country. And then you could just, you know, estimate how much solar will be deployed, but. Solar PV. The levelized cost electricity is like 2.5 times higher in Liberia, Sudan and Sierra Leone than it is in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Morocco. Right. And so then when you’re thinking about some of these things, you’re like, okay, well, that’s going to deploy. I mean, that’s going to impact how much we can deploy. Right. And so these countries are starting at different starting points. They have different resource availability, They have different amounts of people in-country that can actually be trained or that are ready to learn how to deploy these and manage these technologies. And so that part of like the what’s on the ground now and where do we need to get to is something that I think we were really pushing in this paper of we need to recognize where people are in their political landscape, country, landscape. Cost of these technologies have more information and sourcing in those countries and then use that to plan better so that and try to get away from this one size fits all solution of all African countries need to only use wind and solar. Right? Because that’s just not going to work. 

Bill Loveless [00:28:50] Right. And the paper takes account of the circumstances. And for countries to illustrate how climate and energy circumstances vary across the continent, depending on the resources the countries have and their economic and social conditions. Some are rich in fossil fuel resources, some are abundant in and renewable energy potential. Let’s start with one of those countries and tell us a little bit about circumstances there. And that is in Ethiopia. 

Destenie Nock [00:29:21] Yeah, So I think in Ethiopia it’s really unique because it’s had really fast economic growth and it’s powered by like 90% hydropower, which is very unique and, you know, in the continent. And also it’s pursued a holistic green economic growth since like the mid 2000 that had like, you know, really ambitious, like climate resilient green economy strategy that they deployed in 2011. And that policy was really like kind of like rooted in government structures, like national policy is to focus on renewables and power, like short term and long term development. And there’s like, you know, a lot of solar opportunities there. It has a lot of fossil fuel resources and renewables and Ethio are set to be the cheapest generation technology in the short term, right. And I think that is because like it’s been getting this like it’s wheels going right on this renewable energy. And so that’s why you can drive down the cost, right? Economies of scale. The more you you know, the more you scale, the faster the prices fall. And so I think that that’s something exciting for Ethiopia. And I think that that’s what makes it pretty unique. And then my house, I actually have like a student that has been doing research on Ethiopia, outside of this outside of this paper. But he was looking at, you know, how electricity development could support agricultural development, right, in Ethiopia. And so, you know, how can we deploy small scale pumped irrigation systems and how might that affect like maize growth, wheat production production and yield rates? Right. And I think that that the ability of the electricity sector to support the agricultural sector is a good opportunity as well. 

Bill Loveless [00:31:24] Yeah. And if I’m not wrong at I think you referred to Ethiopia as perhaps a model in some ways for its policy. 

Destenie Nock [00:31:33] Yeah, it is. And I think that Ethiopia is one of the countries that isn’t just relying on wind and solar. It also is having a reliance on like biomass. Right. And. The government has started to implement off grid solar to address rural and urban electrification disparities. And but it still has a ways to go in reaching its electric full electrification by 2030. Right. And but the government is taking this the pathway of let’s diversify. So we’re going mostly renewable. We are diversifying those renewables. 

Bill Loveless [00:32:17] And this comes despite conflicts in Ethiopia, difficulties that country has had with insurgencies and that sort of thing. 

Destenie Nock [00:32:23] Yeah, and I think that, you know, I’m so. I guess interest is the wrong word. I’m still like, I guess like kind of holding my breath on how that will play out, right? Because the political landscape, I mean, that’s not something we really dove into in this paper, but political. Like conflict wars, right? Like human humanitarian challenges. Like those are always going to set us back. Right. And and Ethiopia, like how how those things get resolved. You know, what the the new governance structure is going to be like in from the long term, you know, and and how we kind of how they return from that, I think is going to be something that will be really defining for the energy transition. 

Bill Loveless [00:33:17] Mozambique is at a crossroads with its development of natural gas and renewables. Tell us about Mozambique. 

Destenie Nock [00:33:25] Yeah, I think that the gas is really to try to overcome their, like financial and energy shortages that have really threatened their economic transformation. But it is like they have I think it’s estimated that they have over 4 trillion cubic meters of gas like natural gas reserves. And so that is, you know, one of the kind of local energy sources, right, that they want to use to develop because it’s much cheaper to drill it and get it out of your own ground than it is to import it. Right. And so for that energy security, I think that that’s one one reason for that pathway. Now, it does. I think that it being a hybrid opens up a lot of opportunities and risks, though, especially as they are continuing to develop this natural gas infrastructure. So it could like yield a lot of positive like short to medium term economic returns just because like for manufacturing and things you really need like consistent electricity supply, right? You need to be able to just kind of produce and produce. But then, you know, the other concern is locking carbon lock in. And I think that that’s something that the country is going to have to balance. 

Bill Loveless [00:34:51] Yeah, you mentioned that in the case of Mozambique and perhaps other countries that are rich in and gas, Nigeria, Congo, Mauritania, Senegal, that a problem is the risk I guess rate of of stranded assets down the road that particularly in light of, say, the European Union’s carbon border adjustment mechanism, something that you said South Africa also has to keep in mind and that, of course, that mechanism imposes taxes on carbon intensive imports to Europe could be a risky proposition for Mozambique, these other countries down the road. 

Destenie Nock [00:35:33] Yeah, but I think like the other thing that some of these countries are thinking is like, we want to develop our economies so that we’re not just importing materials, we’re not just getting taxed on, you know, the gas coming in like instead of gas coming in, maybe we’re going to manufacture something and then import that. Right. And so I think at least when I was talking to stakeholders in Ghana, they wanted to develop their own technologies that they would export. Right. What it didn’t just want to be export of raw materials and then somebody else takes those materials, makes something and then sells it back to them. And so I think that that is like a risk because if they keep wanting to export gas, then it’s going to be it can get more expensive, especially because it’s being taxed. But I think that the other side of it is that they won’t have to import as much of the cars as much as of the boats and materials. Right. They want to be able to build those in-country. 

Bill Loveless [00:36:31] Yeah. Then, of course, it raises the issue of, you know, increased reliance on natural gas in Africa for energy security purposes. Some one question that. Is that a good idea going forward in terms of decarbonization? But again, you know, I was reading this same column from President Buhari of Nigeria. He said Africa is the continent closest to being carbon neutral, its reserves. It reserves the right to plug holes in its energy mix with the resources in its ground, especially when they will make almost no difference to global emissions. 

Destenie Nock [00:37:07] And I think that that’s the thing that we often forget, is that people in the continent are not reliable on are not entirely not reliable, not dependent on electricity right now. And the demand is very low. And so as they are trying to develop them, they do have a right to use what they have. And I think that that also will put pressure on developed countries to move away. Right. If if we can’t import gas from Africa and we’re not getting it from Russia, then and we can’t get it from anywhere else, then we’re going to push ourselves further to move away from these things. Right. And that’s something that I think maybe doesn’t get talked about as much of, you know, if we can’t import it for ourselves, then we are forced to change, too. And I think sometimes that can be a bit of a worry for some leaders in, you know, the US, Europe and other places. 

Bill Loveless [00:38:10] Now, what will it take to arm these nations in Africa with the empirical rather than the anecdotal evidence they need to support their policy decisions? You know, you know our investments being made and based on local knowledge, skills and institutions. 

Destenie Nock [00:38:28] I think that greater data, greater communication is one part of it, because, you know, the data that you don’t have is the problem that you can’t see, you can’t measure and you can’t evaluate if you’re getting better. And a lot of the current data collection methods rely on electricity. They rely on wi fi cell phones, you know, self-reporting and that type of thing. And so to really, I think, drive the. The development. We need more data on how it will impact how you can overcome different barriers. I think that in the United States we focus our electricity buildout right now on forecasting demand, building it to meet that demand, and then, you know, evaluating environmental environmental sustainability after we’ve like, okay, well, we’re going to meet the demand, let’s make sure it’s sustainable, too. And I think in Africa, the the the objective and the way that you would build it out is slightly different because you are building for social benefit, right? You’re building to meet a social target, to meet a social goal. And a lot of times people have no idea how to measure social progress, which is, I think, one reason why I love being in this area, because I find it to be a big challenge and I love a challenge. So for one of the models that I had built in my Ph.D. in that my students are building out now, it’s like we built an electricity system planning model that integrates a person’s preference for equality into the build out rate. So we saw when people cared a lot about equality and but they didn’t have that big of a budget to work with. They were deploying a lot more solar home systems, you know, a couple, a lot of hydro. But they were only deploying coal then when people only cared about like didn’t care about equality at all. They just wanted to build because it’s impossible to get the most electrons in their system. Then they were building want more fossil fuels, hydro, large scale. But even so, then as the budget got bigger and even if the person had a strong preference for equality, they started to build more centralized systems. Because of that, economies of scale, because of, you know, the high income users supporting low income users. And I think that that is something that we kind of forget about how like the U.S. developed its electricity system. Right? It wasn’t giving everybody a bunch of light bulbs. It was companies first, people, residents, right. For these secondary benefits of electricity. Second, and I think that in Africa, too much of the time we have started where we are now, which is light bulbs reading, let’s get people off of kerosene. And I think the indoor air pollution argument is, you know, that’s one part of health. But the other part is like. When we come in and we give people light bulbs and things, it just disrupts the current industry of kerosene. Right. So there’s an industry that is already there. People know how much it costs, They know how it works. And then now we’ve disrupted that without. But then when I talked to a chief, he said electricity takes away money before kerosene took my money. And I’m like, you know, that’s actually true, right? Like, we forgot that people need the cost, the jobs, the economic sustainability piece of I felt like I couldn’t afford this. And now I feel like I still can’t afford this. And I want to just go back to what I know because electricity sometimes goes out and I don’t know how it works. And I’m like really confused. And I knew how kerosene worked, right? And so I think that that is one piece of why the transition has stalled, because we’ve missed this education about electricity. A lot of people don’t know how it works. They don’t know how they’re being charged. I mean, if you ask people here in the United States like how much they pay per kilowatt hour, most people have no idea. Right. They know how much they pay per month, but they don’t know why their bill goes up and down every month. And people in the continent of Africa, the African continent, also hate that because they’re more, you know, more aware as well because they are monitoring it. 

Bill Loveless [00:43:02] Interesting. You know, when I talk to college professors like you, I like to hear what their students are telling them about their outlook for the future when it comes to climate change and energy security, whether it’s in the United States, in Africa or wherever. What are they saying in your classrooms, in the projects you’re engaged with them in? Are they hopeful? Are you hopeful? 

Destenie Nock [00:43:24] I think that they in general, when they first come into my classroom, they’re kind of like down like, oh my God, the world is ending and, you know, nothing is working right. And my hope is that by the time they leave that they are more hopeful. And I feel like I get that a little bit. You know, I get a lot of students coming to me wanting to work with me on these projects for social justice, engineering for social good, and how to use quantitative models to answer social justice questions. Right. I think that, you know, in the past we view surveys to try to get at that. We’ve got an anecdotal evidence and now and now the the challenge is, okay, we have a lot of data coming in. We have done a lot of surveys. Now how can we do this on a large scale like that is replicable, that you can kind of use some more objective methods, but then, you know, measure kind of like how are people feeling and how are they changing over time and what they actually do. I feel hopeful just because I like to be the person that tries to see the world not just as it is, but how it ought to be and how it should be. And then I try to work towards that just because I feel like there’s a lot of people that are good at telling you everything that’s wrong. And there’s not as many people that will tell you what they think that we should do to try to make the world better. And so I just kind of challenge myself and the students that work with me to try to never just lead the conversation, that there’s people that don’t have access to electricity and they’re suffering. Right. Like you want to leave it as there are people that are suffering. And, you know, I’ve talked to them and I’ve listened to them and I and they have told me that to make it better, they need manufacturing in the country. They need staple jobs. They need you know, they need to see the benefit of how electricity works for them. One of the best quotes I ever heard was nobody stopped using the typewriter because paper got expensive. Right. People stop using the typewriter because laptops and computers were more convenient. And so if you want people to switch, just make it really convenient and show them how it makes their life better. And they will do that. Even though computers and laptops cost a heck of a lot more than a typewriter. 

Bill Loveless [00:45:56] That’s good to hear and it’s good to hear about the work that you’re doing as well as the work of your students here in the United States. But also, as we’ve discussed quite a bit today in the global South, particularly in Africa. Destiny Nock, thanks. Thanks for joining us today on Columbia Energy Exchange. 

Destenie Nock [00:46:16] Thanks for having me, Bill. 

Bill Loveless [00:46:25] Thank you again, Destiny Nock, and thank you for joining us on Columbia Energy Exchange. The show is brought to you by the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. The show is hosted by Jason Bordoff and Bill Loveless. The show is produced by Erin Hartig, Stephen Lacy and Cecily Mason Martinez from Postscript Media. Additional support from Daniel Prop, Natalie Volk and Kyu Lee Gregory. Bill Frank is our sound engineer. For more information about the podcast for the Center on Global Energy Policy, visit us online at Energy Policy dot Columbia dot edu or follow us on social media at Columbia U. Energy. And if you like what you heard, consider giving us a rating on Apple Podcasts. It helps the show reach more listeners like yourself. We’ll see you next week.

The spotlight is on Africa at COP27, the UN climate change conference taking place in Egypt.

This year, climate-induced disasters have ravaged the continent. Cyclones and flooding in the south, and a four-year drought in the east have crippled food supplies, increased human suffering, and hurt economic growth. 

Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of Africans still live in energy poverty. With pressure from developed nations to cut emissions at global climate talks, African leaders are hoping to secure billions of dollars to invest in the transition away from fossil fuels and build new energy infrastructure. 

But securing financing to build renewable energy projects isn’t enough. For the first time in its history, the COP agenda includes “loss and damage” funds. These are reparations that industrialized countries would pay to developing countries which have suffered the most from climate change. 

What will it take to bring about meaningful energy transitions in Africa? And do the energy developments underway give us some insight on what’s possible?

This week host Bill Loveless talks with Dr. Destenie Nock. Destenie is an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University where she teaches civil and environmental engineering as well as engineering and public policy. She is also newly appointed to Columbia’s Visiting Faculty Program.

Destenie recently co-authored a report about energy poverty in Africa in the journal Nature titled “Africa needs context-relevant evidence to shape its clean energy future.”

Bill and Destenie spoke about her research, and the nuanced energy and climate needs of African nations. They discuss ‘loss and damage’ and the previously unfulfilled promises from wealthy countries to fund climate mitigation projects.


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