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An Alum’s Journey to Tackle Energy Poverty

January 24, 2017

Henry Louie (top row, third from right) and his KiloWatts for Humanity volunteers stand in front of a solar-powered energy kiosk they built in Zambia.

Henry Louie (top row, third from right) and his KiloWatts for Humanity volunteers stand in front of a solar-powered energy kiosk they built in Zambia. Photo Credit: KiloWatts for Humanity

In Kitwe, Zambia a raw wilderness meets industrial potential. Fruit stands are propped up on top of burning sands. Women tend to the tropical fruit, an array of incandescent color, boldly mirrored in their intricate headresses. 

In town, tall 1960s-style highrises flank city streets, cars  thrum  through choked intersections  and weave around endless passersby.

As the second largest city in the nation, Kitwe sets the foundation for economic and industrial development.  However, urban potential and actual economic growth and development  are not synonymous systems in Zambia.

Less than three percent of rural Zambians live with electricity. For rural communities, power runs like a golden thread through the houses of the lucky.  Even in urban cities, like Kitwe, less than 20 percent of people have electricity.

The country’s high reliance on hydropower and confined power distribution infrastructure has left the nation with a limited source and lacking structure. Because of the high demand for power, the unstable power grid suffers from constant blackouts.

The Zambian government has put forth new initiatives to preserve power and prevent blackouts. In July 2015, Zambian officials began a load-shedding program. It delivers power on a rolling schedule, offering electricity  to different areas at planned times.

It was around the same time the load-shedding  program began when Henry Louie (PhD ‘08), an electrical engineering alum and assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Seattle University, arrived in Zambia. Louie received a Fulbright Award, allowing him to spend a year at Copperbelt University in Kitwe, Zambia. During this year, Louie not only taught courses on power engineering at the university, but he also traveled to remote villages around several African nations to implement power systems.

While in Zambia, Louie  worked with KiloWatts for Humanity, a non-profit organization that he co-founded in 2009.

“I worked with KiloWatts for Humanity to establish two solar-powered ‘energy kiosks’ that provide electricity to communities that are not connected to the grid,” Louie said. “Hundreds of people in these villages now have access to electric lights (important for safety and to allow children to study at night), refrigeration and radios/TVs.”

These “energy kiosks” or microgrids can supply electricity to a large group of individuals through solar and wind power. In Zambia, most communities do not have access to a broad national grid network. Louie and his team analyzed the conditions of the villages they visited. Then they raised the grant money they needed to install microgrids.

Louie has always had an interest in tackling energy poverty. As a Ph.D. student at the UW, Louie worked on renewable energy forecasting, power system optimization and electricity markets. After visiting Zambia for the first time in 2009, he realized he wanted to return for a longer period of time to really evaluate the current energy situation. The Fulbright allowed him to do just that.

At Copperbelt University, Louie’s research evaluated the effectiveness of load-shedding in conserving energy, as well as its impact on people and the environment.

“While in Zambia, I established a research group at Copperbelt University,” Louie said. “We are studying the effects of the on-going electricity shortage in Zambia. Every day we are subjected to 8 hours without electricity…This work is on-going, and I will continue the collaboration with my Zambian colleagues while back at Seattle University.”

Henry Louie, Ph.D. ‘08

Henry Louie, Ph.D. ‘08

Louie worked with Zambia’s largest  power company, ZESCO, to develop models of their rural distribution networks. In addition, he utilized the company’s hard data. He compared these results to earlier survey results.  Louie and his team surveyed over 200 households in Copperbelt connected to the power grid.

“Without electricity, people are switching to other energy sources like charcoal, which is expensive and can lead to negative environmental outcomes like forest degradation and CO2 emissions,” Louie said.

Louie hopes that the results from the survey can galvanize the international community to financially support the implementation of more microgrids and the generation of more power for the nation.

In the United States, energy availability is so prevalent that it is ignored as a luxury. As energy became more commonplace, the U.S. witnesed an increase in industrial and agricultural gains. Additionally, education levels improved with access to light to read and, eventually, the connectivity of computer machines.

  Zambia, as well as other African nations like Ethiopia and Liberia, is investing in initiatives to improve quality of life and advance its country to compete on the world stage. Microgrids and similar energy sources offer the clean, inexpensive power access that is needed for economic, societal and environmental development.

Louie will continue to be a strong advocate for energy access, dedicating his life’s work  to improving energy poverty around the world.

“In the short-term, I’m especially enjoying having 24-hour access to electricity, internet and clean water,” Louie said. “In the longer-term, my colleagues at Seattle University and at KiloWatts for Humanity will continue to establish energy kiosks in energy-impoverished areas.”