Start main page content

Overcoming energy poverty

- Leanne Rencken

Researchers are developing innovative solutions to counter the energy poverty that impacts teaching and learning.

Wits Optical Communications Lab | Curiosity 15: #Energy ©

In South Africa, with just under 90% of the population connected to the energy grid, there is no typical energy divide, explains Raees Dangor, a PhD candidate in the Wits School of Electrical and Information Engineering (Wits EIE). Rather, what we are experiencing when the national grid fails us, is universal energy poverty. That’s because it affects us all, from the suburbs to the CBDs to the townships, to our university campuses. The moment you are loadshed and you don’t have electricity to meet your basic needs, you are in a state of energy poverty.

The real inequality becomes apparent when we look at the 1% or 2% of the population who can afford to plug into alternative sources of energy to keep the lights on.

“Those who have the means to buy an alternative-to-grid supply, such as photovoltaic [solar], or a generator, can sustain themselves. But that is very costly. So, if we look at access to alternative-to-grid supplies, then I would say there’s a clear energy divide, because only the elite and the rich can actually afford to have that,” says Dangor.

The online learning poverty index

It's this energy divide that’s captured Dangor’s attention and motivated him to design his PhD around a tool he built to measure students’ access to online learning. This tool, the Online Learning Poverty Index, considers energy poverty, the energy divide, the digital divide, and the learning environment.

As a founder and former business development manager at Peco Power, Dangor has been privy to several solutions introduced to address inequalities when it comes to online learning. Some of them he’s been directly involved with, such as the Wits Energy Access Project which, in 2021, supplied five solar systems to students in need. What concerns him is that these solutions only ever address part of the problem, and he’s hoping the tool he has devised will help provide a more in-depth and holistic overview.

The Peco Power Brick | Curiosity 15: #Energy ©

Energy and digital divides

“Simply having an Eskom connection, or using the rate of electrification, is a very crude and simplistic manner to really measure and understand a person’s electricity access,” he explains. “When we transitioned to emergency remote teaching at Wits at the onset of Covid-19, everyone had to work online and from home. Our poor and under-privileged students were really affected by the energy divide, but also the digital divide. The electricity they do have doesn’t work that well, they don’t have laptops and computers or internet access in the rural areas, and so several schemes were launched to try and close the divide.”

The schemes he refers to include the University’s partnership with network providers to supply students with 30GB of mobile data, the availability of loan devices, as well as Covid-19 related National Students' Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) allowances, amongst others.

Dangor’s PhD, titled A Multidimensional Approach to Online Learning Poverty, looks at the suitability of schemes such as these, which while helpful, are not comprehensive or universal enough to apply to everyone – especially considering our current situation, which has only gotten worse since Covid-19. It was the pandemic which ultimately acted as the catalyst for us all to consider learning and working from home solutions.

Post-Covid blended learning

Dangor explains: “The South African energy crisis has worsened. Stage 8 loadshedding is on the cards and there is the threat of a national blackout. This compounds the challenges of working from home. Many students still do not own digital devices, nor do they have reliable internet access at home. At the same time, blended learning is a prevalent trend at Universities, meaning that a significant amount of higher education content will be delivered through online channels. It’s inevitable that many students will be forced to work for extended hours at the University given their challenges at home. The University is obligated to make provisions. Those who are unable to spend extended hours at the University need to also be considered. A deep understanding of online poverty is thus essential for the successful implementation of blended learning and, in the long term, the achievement of universal access to higher education.”

And this is exactly what Dangor hopes to achieve. Based on the Alkire-Foster method used for measuring poverty and wellbeing, Dangor has tailored his tool to investigate South Africa’s access to online learning and uses it to make enquiries around three dimensions of poverty, namely digital, energy, and learning environment.

The digital dimension enquires about a student’s access to devices such as computers, laptops, tablets and smartphones and the availability of an internet connection.

The energy dimension counts the number of utility grid connections – typically 98% of students have one – and the number of alternative-to-grid connections, which only around 1% of students have.

The learning environment checks the students dwelling type which may be formal or informal. However, knowing that the students polled are attending an urban institution, data is skewed towards ‘formal’. It is only when Dangor drills down to these students’ access to a workspace that the data gets interesting. Even though most students live in formal households, a lot of them don’t have a dedicated workspace.

“Looking at all these aspects, and using my tool to measure them, allows me to understand where we need to make provisions and who specifically is suffering the most, because that’s where we need to start, that’s our target,” he says.

Once Dangor’s tool can generate a view of what resources people really need to overcome online learning poverty, he can share this valuable data. Those providing solutions can then create interventions that make a real difference.

This application is not limited to tertiary-education students; it can be used by corporates, and those in the banking sector, engaging in work-from-home strategies, and in rural environments where children are being on-boarded into the online learning space. 

Power bricks and fibre sharing 

One of the interventions Dangor is keen on seeing being put into practice is the combined potential of Peco Power’s power brick used in conjunction with the Fibre Before the Fibre project.

The power brick is an off-grid technology that incorporates a battery and inverter. The battery can be charged from any source, including solar or the grid, but it’s true value lies in the fact that the ‘plug and play’ solution can be expanded with the simple addition of more bricks to generate more power, for home use, or even better, en masse to power a community or school.

Couple that with the Fibre Before Fibre Project and you’ve got a power bundled with connectivity solution.

The Fibre Before Fibre Project is being developed by Dr Mitchell Cox in the Wits Optical Communication Lab. It is an ingenious method of sharing internet access using long-range wireless optical communication technology between those who have it (such as fibre to the home in affluent areas) and those who don’t, but who perhaps live just across a road or valley in the city. The project, which originated at Wits and has acquired international university partners, is currently being piloted.

Both ventures were developed by teams at the Wits EIE. On their own, each of these projects is impressive, but their potential to change lives when used in conjunction with Dangor’s tool is where the real brilliance lies.

  • Leanne Rencken is a freelance writer.
  • This article first appeared in Curiosity, a research magazine produced by Wits Communications and the Office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation.
  • Read more in the 15th issue, themed: #Energy. We explore energy research into finding solutions for SA's energy crisis, illuminate energy needs of people with disabilities, address the energy and digital divide in an unequal society, and investigate the origins of fire control.