In September of last year, residents in Accra, Ghana plunged into darkness for almost a week due to a major electrical power outage, an all-too-common occurrence in the capital city located on the southern coast at the Gulf of Guinea. This incident places a spotlight on the need for cities like Accra to gather reliable data to measure, detect, and monitor power outages while assessing the performance of their electric power grid.
It’s widely known that access to electricity is vital for supporting economic growth. Without it, families often turn to costlier energy sources like burning fuel that can also cause indoor air pollution in their homes. Inadequate power supply also raises the costs of goods and services for households, limits job opportunities and hinders the delivery of critical services such as health care and education. For businesses, lack of electricity stifles investment, leading to hundreds of millions of dollars per year in higher energy costs, reduced employment income, and lost productivity. Recognizing this, MCC has invested over $2.5 billion in the energy sector of our partner countries through compact and threshold programs.
One of the most salient lessons MCC has learned from its early energy programs is to place a stronger focus on investments in power reliability – that is, the ability of the electric grid to support continuous supply of electricity to customers with limited outages and interruptions. This emphasis on reliability emerged from evaluations of earlier energy programs that prioritized extending grid infrastructure to large numbers of new customers, while overlooking the capacity of the grid to absorb this expansion or even support existing customers. As a result of these findings, MCC now designs its investments to promote reliability as the central element of the customer experience, and as a necessary pre-condition to expanded access.
With this design shift to reliability came a new challenge: how to rigorously measure the impact of MCC’s growing energy portfolio. To get a sense of this, imagine asking a household member or business owner: exactly how many hours of electricity outages did you experience over the past week, month, or year? As for measuring impact, this must be compared to other customers that are also connected to the grid, use electricity, and experience outages, but reside in areas further removed from where the MCC investment went in. Most commonly, this information would be gathered at just two points in time – before and after an intervention. As you might guess, this approach yields a limited amount of data, and any responses to these questions would be imprecise.
Of course, answering such questions with high-quality data isn’t merely an academic exercise for MCC, or the intrigue of our data nerds. With our growing portfolio of energy programs, MCC must know whether our newest investments are improving the performance of the broader power grid in order to assess whether we are delivering expected results for energy consumers. And to answer this, we needed far higher precision in our data – and more of it. This called for a wholly new approach.
A Conduit for Innovation
Given these circumstances, MCC needed new ways to directly measure grid-level outcomes in its more recent energy programs, looking beyond our traditional sources such as household and business surveys, or even utility-provided data.
In 2017, MCC partnered with the USAID-funded Development Impact Lab, headquartered at the University of California Berkeley, to pilot a novel high-frequency data collection system for detecting and monitoring power outages. The remote sensing platform, referred to as GridWatch, consists of devices that are plugged into wall outlets within participating households and businesses, and are designed to detect power outages and restorations in real-time, including their precise timing and location. These devices transmit measurements to a cloud-based server, enabling further analysis of the data.
A successful demonstration of the technology platform in the Ghana Power Compact led to the creation of a new company, nLine, and MCC’s partnership with UC Berkeley was extended in 2019 to cover wider areas of Ghana’s capital, Accra. To date, the system has over five years of real-time outage data at the household and business level – creating a wealth of information where previously there was very little. MCC will pair this with data gathered through household and business surveys. MCC expects to be able to detect changes in outages attributable to compact investments, and therefore to provide a rigorous estimate of the effectiveness of the compact in improving economic outcomes within Accra.
Our experience in Ghana has shown that remote sensing platforms can be dynamically deployed with our partner countries to support rigorous analyses of outages over time and across small geographic areas. Aside from GridWatch, there are now a growing number of similar technology platforms able to meet the specific measurement needs of MCC and potentially other donor programs investing in energy. There are also other low-cost data sources that can shed light on grid-performance, such as high-frequency phone surveys, or even the “night lights” satellite data from NASA.
Illuminating the Future with Data
What are the lessons from these experiences, and what’s next for MCC? To light the way, we turn again to the MCC model’s focus on results and country ownership. A couple of recommendations toward this end include:
Promote early efforts at gathering high-quality, grid-level data to inform project design. The use of rigorous grid-level performance data early during our program lifecycle offers the potential to inform project design and even support implementation. Possible applications include improved modeling of expected impacts of different types of investments, assisting in problem analysis, or enhancing the rigor of project screening and selection.
Work with country partners to explore whether power sector institutions can benefit from similar technologies to monitor and improve sector performance. Beyond early-stage program design, remote sensing platforms and other emerging technologies open possibilities for power sector institutions to harness better grid performance data. MCC can engage with country counterparts to assess needs, identify opportunities, and consider innovative solutions to support key sector functions, such as independent regulation and monitoring, or outage response.
MCC has increasingly pioneered and embraced new technologies and partnerships to measure its results. The use of remote sensing to evaluate energy programs has sparked groundbreaking new possibilities for generating evidence, with the future for MCC looking bright. We will continue to seek creative solutions for obtaining reliable and rigorous data on the performance of the power grid within our partner countries, and new lessons will emerge from these initiatives. The lessons and suggestions here build on MCC’s history of applying inventive techniques for understanding the impacts of our programs on the well-being of their citizens.