Breakthrough technologies can do little to solve the world’s energy problems unless they are rooted in cultural, economic, social and political reality.
That was the primary message emerging from a conference hosted by the University of Delaware (UD) and featuring leading energy scientists, policy experts and industry representatives from Africa earlier this week.
UD’s Office for International Students and Scholars has created a new student advisory committee to enhance the sense of belonging among the international community.
• Honoring partnership in China
• Sketching Brazil
• Semester in Italy
Nancy Targett, acting president of UD, welcomed attendees and said that the conference was a great opportunity to strengthen existing relationships and forge new ones. “UD has a great deal of expertise in energy fields and a long history of conducting cutting-edge research in the areas of photovoltaics, catalysis, fuel cells, and energy and environmental policy,” she said. Targett also pointed out that the UD campus serves as a testing ground for this research. “We have two fuel-cell buses that are part of our transportation fleet, and a third one will be put into service soon,” she said. “We have cars that can store energy and then feed it back into the power grid, and we have a wind turbine in Lewes that generates enough power to effectively take that campus off the grid.”
“And we can’t forget that way back in 1973, we built Solar One, a house designed to showcase the first major thin-film solar cell.” Delivering a video welcome, Babatunde Ogunnaike, dean of the UD College of Engineering, said, “We need to think beyond the borders of our own country if we want to ensure that our research is to have a global impact, because the grand challenges of the Western world are not always the same as those of our neighbors in developing nations.”
Chris Coons, U.S. senator from Delaware and a member of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health Policy, opened the program with a talk that reflected the complexity of the problem.
“The challenge is how to develop energy without contributing to further climate change,” he said. “Technologies like the ones being developed at UD have the potential to bring Africans literally out of the dark and into the light.”
Coons pointed out that electrification was rolled out in the U.S. through cooperatives.
“It’s one of the greatest examples of effective grassroots democracy,” he said. “We have to engage communities in ownership of the means of energy production.”
Coons, who has made many trips to Africa, including a study abroad program in Nairobi when he was a student, said that the Mandela Washington Fellowships for Young African Leaders would prove to be one of President Barack Obama’s greatest legacies that program brought Glory Oguegbu to UD from Nigeria in 2015. Founder and CEO of an organization focused on alleviating hunger and poverty, she returned to UD for the conference and presented Coons with the dilemma she faces every day — explaining to people in rural areas why they should care about climate change.
“What do I tell them when they see no reason to stop using coal and kerosene as fuel?” she asked.
Coons said the best approach is to share visible local examples of climate change, such as deforestation and loss of crop productivity.
“Begin with examples rooted in the daily life of Nigerians,” he said. “Show them that they can no longer raise cattle here because there’s no water. It’s not about convincing people to save the Earth — it’s showing them that better cooking stoves will save them money so they can send their daughters to school.”
Dan Rich, University Professor of Public Policy at UD, talked about the role of the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA), a globally recognized think-tank based in Johannesburg, in Africa’s Second Revolution, which is focused on social and economic equity.
MISTRA’s leaders, Sibusiso Vil-Nkomo and Renosi Mokate, who received their master’s and doctoral degrees from UD’s School of Public Policy and Administration, have helped identify areas where UD strengths match needs in sub-Saharan Africa.
“A lot of what is happening here today is because of the initiative of people who came to Delaware a long time ago and have come back after making changes in their own countries,” Rich said.
Vil-Nkomo talked about sustainable development in a transition economy like South Africa, which, for the past two decades, has been working to dismantle the economic, social, and political structures of apartheid.
“The challenge is making sure that public servants and the private sector implement the policies that have been established,” Vil-Nkomo said.
One of the most energy- and carbon-intensive economies in the world, South Africa has rolled out solar water heating systems in public housing, erected wind turbines to generate energy, and reduced carbon emissions through improved mass transit using clean energy buses.
Consistent integration of the three pillars — economic, social and environmental — is a challenge, Vil-Nkomo said, but South Africa has demonstrated to the world that a great deal can be accomplished in 20 years.
Ralph Begleiter, Rosenberg Professor of Communication at UD, moderated a panel discussion focused on the public policy aspects of energy. Panelists included Bonaventure Mbida-Essama, CEO of the Nelson Mandela Institute, and Olurinde Lafe, chairman and CEO of Ohio-based Innovative Computing Group Inc., as well as Rich and Vil-Nkomo.
The consensus among the panelists was that local communities must be heavily involved in the development and implementation of energy solutions.
“We need to look at development from a village point of view and build the grid community by community,” Lafe said. “If you know how to pull people together, magic will happen. Power companies should be owned by smaller entities, with the government focused only on policy and governance.”
Mbida-Essama emphasized that it’s not enough to just have a policy — it needs to be implemented with a feedback and monitoring system to ensure that it works.
Rich pointed out that the capacity of communities to act on their own behalf can be affected by existing relationships that predispose toward certain options and against others such as renewables. “The emancipation of beliefs is the first step in change,” he said.
Begleiter also asked the panelists if they thought the energy problems of Africa must be solved within individual countries or whether the energy field could be moved forward in a way that involves continent-wide policy.
Nkomo responded that Africa must be redeemed “in chunks” by countries that share the same values, which can then lead to the creation of models for broader application.
The takeaway according to Begleiter?
“You have to keep these kinds of questions in mind as you develop the science, so you can explain to policy makers why it’s important for them to get on board with what you’re developing,” he said. “Science and technology cannot be successful without public policy and political support.”
Following the panel discussion, the emphasis of the conference shifted to technical talks on fuel cells, catalysis, photovoltaics, wind, solar thermal and biomass energy. Speakers from Africa included:
• Dmitri Bessarabov, director, Hydrogen South Africa: Infrastructure;
• Cordellia Sita, director, Hydrogen South Africa: Systems;
• Sharon Blair, director, Hydrogen South Africa: Catalysis;
• Patricia Kooyman, SARChI Professor of Chemical Engineering, University of Cape Town;
• Benard Muok, director, Centre for Research, Innovation and Technology, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology, Kenya;
• Dipolelo Jane Elford, renewable energy consultant, South Africa;
• Olayinka S. Ohunakin, director, Energy and Environment Research Group, Covenant University, Nigeria; and
• Sameer Hameer, lecturer in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology, Tanzania.
Technical talks were also presented by UD’s Ajay Prasad, director of the Center for Fuel Cell Research; Yushan Yan, Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering; Raul Lobo, director of the Center for Catalytic Science and Technology; Steven Hegedus, senior scientist in the Institute of Energy Conversion; Jeremy Firestone, director of the Center for Carbon-free Power Integration; and Bingjun Xu, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering.
About The Conference
The first UD-Africa Energy Conference was held from April 25-26 at the University of Delaware’s Clayton Hall Conference Center. The event was organized and chaired by Ajay Prasad, Alumni Distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering, and Douglas Buttrey, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering.
Support for the conference was provided through the University of Delaware Energy Institute, Institute for Global Studies Global Exchange (Globex) program, College of Engineering, College of Arts and Sciences, College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment, Department of Mechanical Engineering, Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Center for Carbon-free Power Integration and African Studies Program.
About UD-African Partnerships
The University of Delaware maintains nine institutional agreements in countries across Africa including Nigeria, Ghana, Mauritius and South Africa, beginning with Obafemi Awolowo University in 1993. These partnerships span the College of Arts and Sciences, the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics, the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment, and the College of Engineering.
In addition, UD’s Institute for Global Studies annually hosts two Department of State exchange programs, the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders (YALI) and the Study of the U.S. Institutes Women’s Leadership Program (SUSI-WLP) for young leaders from Sub-Saharan Africa. Administered by IREX, both of these programs bring young leaders from Sub-Saharan Africa to the University of Delaware for six weeks of intensive civic engagement and leadership training.
Those interested in learning more about UD’s Global partnerships or any of UD’s Department of State exchange programs are encouraged to contact Dan Bottomley, associate director for global partnerships and programs.
Article by Diane Kukich
Photos by Doug Baker