Philomathia Seed Fund Award 2012/13

Project Description


  • Professor Eric Brewer (Electrical Engineering and Computer Science)
  • Professor Edward Miguel (Economics)
  • Professor Seth Sanders (Electrical Engineering and Computer Science)

Brewer_Miguel_Sanders_sm_0.jpgRoughly 1.3 billion people in developing countries still live without access to reliable electricity. These households will drive most of the medium-term growth in energy consumption. As expanding access using current technologies will accelerate global climate change, we must find novel solutions that displace fossil fuels and are financially viable for developing regions. The overarching goal of this team of engineers and economists is to design, build and field-test a scalable, sustainable electrification system based on renewable generation, for communities that are unlikely to gain access to the grid in the near term. They plan to do this by capturing high quality information about household energy demand in developing countries, and using these data to design and pilot a novel microgrid technology with innovative metering, payment and operating models in rural Kenya.This will be the first project to study the economic and technological aspects of rural electrification in Kenya from both on- and off-grid perspectives, with direct implications for other developing countries.


Spring 2015 Updates

By: Wallace Ravven

The Economics of Change

The ice dispenser plops a few cubes into your glass, and you resume clicking away on your tablet. The room temperature hits 74 degrees, and the AC kicks in with a rush. Familiar enough sounds in Berkeley or Boston or Baton Rouge. But not so in many rural towns and villages, from Mexican mountain enclaves to the plains of Africa.

More than a billion people in the developing world still lack electricity at home, let alone an internet connection. Many regional governments and utility providers lack the information and infrastructure to wire up scattered populations.

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Edward Miguel applies the tools of economics to such social issues as access to affordable energy and the possible links between climate and conflict. Photo: Peg Skorpinski.

Through fieldwork in Africa and India, economist Edward Miguel has studied the technological and social forces that hold back economic development, education and health. Along with colleagues and students in computer science, electrical engineering and in the business school, he helped launch a project to electrify rural communities — to literally empower rural communities in the developing world.

The Rural Electric Power Project began with pilots to test the feasibility of using AC solar microgrids (originally designed by engineers at UC Berkeley) to power clusters of rural households. This seemed like a promising solution in an area where less than five percent of households were hooked up to an electrical grid. For the other 95 percent: no refrigerators, no electric heat, no lights at night.

Team members developed protoype “microgrids” that could power separate clusters of homes without needing to access a main grid. The project began with seed funds from the Philomathia Center, established at UC Berkeley in 2012 with support from the Philomathia Foundation. The center supports a range of innovative Berkeley programs in energy and climate research.

Once on the ground in Kenya, the researchers found to their surprise that most communities in the region that lacked power were actually located under the national power grid, within a quarter mile of an electrical transformer, but were not connected to it. They calculated that it would cost less to connect all the homes to the close–by national grid than to supply new solar microgrids, and recommended this approach to Kenyan and international policymakers from Nairobi to Washington, D.C.

“The Kenya case we are studying can help us understand broader questions about the role of electrification in economic development — an issue that is on the top of the policy agenda for most African countries,” says Miguel, the Oxfam Professor of Environmental and Resource Economics at Berkeley. The innovative microgrid strategy may be an appropriate solution for other rural areas around the globe — especially ones that are relatively far from the existing grid.

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Working with the Kenyan government, Miguel and his colleagues applied economics and technical innovations to develop a plan for affordable electric power in rural regions.

The benefits of electrification depend as much on economic and cultural forces as it does on new technology. Miguel and his collaborators are conducting surveys in these rural areas to help determine what people are able and willing to pay for electric power, and if the need is concentrated in a relatively small area, or scattered. Answers are essential in order to take advantage of economies of scale in electrification, Miguel says.

The project also offers him a chance to study the impact of electrification on households. “We want to learn how providing power changes the family. “Do you buy a TV or refrigerator, or a computer? Do kids study more at home? Does the family manage its income differently? Maybe when they get electricity, more some people start small businesses.

“There are many question about how this might change life in Africa. The details really matter.”

Miguel’s interest in the forces behind social change has led him to a powerful analysis of research that ties human conflict to climate change. He and his economics colleagues Marshall Burke at Stanford and Berkeley’s Sol Hsiang reviewed what they considered the 60 most rigorous quantitative studies bearing on the possible connections. They drew on studies from many fields using data spanning centuries and five continents.

They applied statistical tools to analyze research ranging from anthropology and agriculture to climate science and economics. Their one–of–a–kind synthesis, first published in a 2013 paper in the journal Science, shows strong and disturbing correlations between rising temperatures and spikes in both regional upheaval and localized crime. Other papers have followed, and Miguel has presented the group’s findings in a 2014 “TED” talk.

Miguel is concerned about what many see as the “credibility problem” of social science research. Because the research questions can be so immediate and contentious — the effect of wages on employment levels, for example — social scientists are at risk of reading their own prejudices into their data, he says.

“There is a widespread view that much research in this area, particularly in economics, is not as credible as authors make it out to be. Most people are trying to do the right thing, but they can easily push beyond what their analysis warrants, or they may be tempted to write up their findings in a way that gets more attention.”

In 2013, he co–founded the Berkeley Initiative for Transparency in the Social Sciences (BITSS) to address the problem. The initiative aims to advance more responsible research methodologies, educate graduate students about the inherent risks of bias, and air concerns directly through professional organizations.

Miguel champions “pre–registration of hypotheses” — clearly defining hypotheses and data analysis methods at a study’s outset. Another “must–do”: publishing all relevant data. “If you have clearly identified your hypotheses, then you’re less likely to see patterns in the data that aren’t really there,” he says. “And if you publish the data, materials and statistical code that you used, other scholars can check the data and the conclusions. That is how science works.”

He teaches a graduate course focusing on research “transparency methods” for Ph.D. social science students throughout the Berkeley campus — the first course of its kind anywhere. “By shaping research practices and expectations of the next generation of scholars here at Cal,” Miguel says, “we hope to make future research more accurate, transparent and credible.”

Power to the People

In the beginning, Eric Brewer and Paul Gauthier created Inktomi. And they saw that it was good. In 1996, before anyone spoke the word Google, Brewer and his Berkeley graduate student launched Inktomi to create the first Internet service based on clusters of networked computers — the architecture that enables modern Internet search engines and cloud computing. 

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Eric Brewer and his students modified conventional long-distance Wi-Fi to allow doctors at hospitals in India to diagnose patients at distant rural clinics. Photo: Peg Skorpinski.

They had developed this prototype distributed system two years earlier as part of Gauthier’s PhD research in Berkeley’s department of computer sciences, where Brewer is a professor. This is the technology that allows us to type in a few keywords and access almost instantly the power of tens of thousands of computers to execute an Internet search.

As Brewer puts it, the networked architecture, adopted by Google and all other search engines, essentially gives a user the power of a supercomputer for a fraction of a second.

In 2003, Yahoo’s leaders bought Inktomi and rebuilt their company on the Inktomi search engine foundation. By then, Google had emerged. Unlike Inktomi, Google had established a sound advertising base, providing money to advance its own search engine capabilities. Google raced ahead of Yahoo after a few years and soon dominated the world of Internet search engines.

“Before the Internet bubble burst, I had billions of dollars — on paper,” recalls Brewer. “I began to think of philanthropy — particularly ways to help the developing world move ahead technologically.”

What Brewer might have supported through philanthropy he has since taken on directly with cadres of tech savvy students in electrical engineering and computer science, as well as students in urban planning, business and economics. In 2003, he created the Technology and Infrastructure for Emerging Regions program, or TIER, at Berkeley, a cross–department enterprise for research and prototype development to help developing countries gain access to affordable energy and communications capacities.

With support from the National Science Foundation, TIER students designed and helped install a novel Wi–Fi technology for the Aravind Eye Hospital in southern India. The system allows physicians at regional hospitals to remotely diagnose eye disease in patients being treated at far–flung clinics.

The Wi–Fi network has already allowed clinicians to restore vision to about a half million people with cataracts, retinopathy, glaucoma and other conditions. Wi–Fi installation is affordable, but is normally limited to the distance between a user and a “hotspot” — usually about a few hundred yards. The TIER group modified Wi–Fi to allow high–bandwidth connections even between towers more than 200 miles apart — a world record. 

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Eric Brewer and graduate student, Achintya Maduri, inspect solar panels used with a prototype power microgrid to provide electric power to homes in rural regions of the developing world. Photo: Peg Skorpinski.

“As a society, we have only used two tools to improve the lives of the poor: good governance and macroeconomics,” Brewer says. “But if I look at what has actually changed societies, it’s technology. And we haven’t taken advantage of that enough.”

In many parts of rural Kenya, about 95 percent of homes have no electricity. Supported with seed funds from the Philomathia Center, TIER students in the Rural Electric Power Project (REPP) are developing new technologies to provide affordable power to two rural communities.

The project involves faculty and students from four Berkeley departments, from computer science and engineering to economics. At Berkeley, REPP team members developed prototype solar–powered generators for “microgrids” to power separate clusters
of homes. Once on the ground in Kenya, they discovered that the communities were almost directly under the national power grid, but not connected to it.

In this particular case, they reasoned, the solution was to connect each house to the existing grid rather than deploy the energy clusters. Project leaders have recommended this to government agencies. Brewer expects the microgrid strategy will fit the bill in other rural regions.

“What you develop in the lab almost never works the first time it’s deployed,” he says. “You discover things that you hadn’t taken into account. Graduate students are great at on–the–ground troubleshooting, and it’s also a terrific learning challenge.”
Brewer sees public universities as ideal incubators for developing new technologies to help emerging economies. “These values are somehow in the nature — the culture — of public universities,” he says. He notes that the Berkeley course, Global Poverty: Challenges and Hopes in the New Millennium, is the most popular course on campus.

He straddles the worlds of low tech and high communications technology, splitting his time between Berkeley and Google. At Google, he oversees the “core infrastructure” development for the Internet giant. “I will be leading the design of the next generation of infrastructure,” he says — a bit flatly given the ambitious sound of the task.

The world of technology has, of course, recognized Brewer’s leadership in fields from distributed networks, to low–tech communications and cloud computing. He was named one of the top ten innovators in the world by InfoWorld, and Forbes recognized him as one of their 12 “e–mavericks,” for which he appeared on the magazine’s cover.

In 1998, he was named a “Global Leader for Tomorrow” by the World Economic Forum. At the high–caliber group’s meeting in Davos, Switzerland in 2000, President Bill Clinton gave Brewer about 90 seconds to convince him that the U.S. government needed to create an official internet portal.  Brewer succeeded. The micro–meeting led Clinton to order a team to investigate the possibilities. Before the end of the year, was the government’s new portal.

“There are still technological barriers for many people in this country, but if you travel in the developing world, you see much higher barriers to economic growth,” Brewer says.  “Worldwide, more than a billion people don’t even have electric lighting in their homes and businesses. If we focus on new technologies that match the scale of the problems on the ground, we can make a big, big difference.”

The Philomathia Center plays a key role in advancing UC Berkeley’s innovative research programs in energy and climate research. Established in 2012, the Philomathia Center represents the enduring partnership between UC Berkeley and the Philomathia Foundation in support of a common vision of improving humankind through the creative application of technology, independent thinking, and a commitment to education.