Mapping energy needs

Nathan Johnson, a seasoned veteran of the field, advised engineers working in foreign countries and small villages and towns to “have hard cash on you.” In addition, he warned, “failure is common.” When attempting to gain information and study others’ lives, “participating in the daily activities is extremely important. Participation enables you [the engineer] to cross the social barrier and have real conversations.”

Johnson attempted to convey the necessity behind engineering in the developing world by adding a sense of urgency and moral importance to the work. Johnson began by iterating a few statistics on energy poverty, such as the estimated 1.4 billion people living without electricity, the 2.7 billion without advanced cooking devices, and the increase from 2.7 to 2.8 billion people who use wood as a primary source of energy. His statistics suggest the question, “Why would cooking without electricity or advanced technology present a potential problem?”

In most situations where families would prepare meals with wood, the wood based fire is in the house. When wood smoke fills the house, it has been proven to cause lung problems for the inhabitants equivalent to the problems observed in those who smoke two packs of cigarettes a day. In addition, open pit fires when left unsupervised for as little as 15 minutes present a hazard to little children who have not learned to walk well yet, as there have been a large number of instances where they fell into the fire.

The UN has taken on the initiative to provide advanced cookware to prevent such hazards, but in most cases where there is new technology it has rarely been used as a full replacement for previous cooking methods, if at all, explained Johnson. For example, the advanced stoves provided for use in the Nana Kenieba Village of Mali were only used to cook sauces when the sauce was cooked as a separate component of the meal, and for short grain porridge, which was not used as the primary porridge.

Failure to truly understand or fully investigate the unique cultural cooking needs of the Nana Kenieba Village meant that the stoves provided were insufficient for the intended use. This gap between need investigation and providing technological advances has become an area where Johnson could be called revolutionary of sorts, after the publication of his Energy Journal article: “Energy Supply and Use In a Rural West African Village.”

In his presentation, Johnson advocated the value of qualitative as well as quantitative data collection methods, based on four main levels or phases of consumer understanding: action, choice, judgement, and viewpoint. By action, Johnson referred to the consumer performing a specific activity or using a specific resource. For this level of consumer understanding/use, the best method of data collection is quantitative observations and surveys. Choice was defined as the consumer choosing a specific option from a set of potential activities or resources. Choice based data was also depicted as most effectively obtained through qualitative analysis, but not to the same degree as action based data. The definition of judgement based data was: “the consumer uses metric x to preference x over y in this application.” Collecting data from judgement was depicted as more effective in the form of qualitative interviews and discussions. Viewpoint data was defined as “the consumer believes x is important to life and uses x to guide decisions.” Viewpoint was depicted as best collected through qualitative methods. Without a variety of data from these categories, analysis will be lacking.

In the community analysis phase of his project in Nana Kenieba, Johnson performed a multifactorial analysis of cooking (with 17 factors) and developed additional methods by which to standardize data collection in his collaborative community analysis. By his process, Johnson believed he was able to identify and explain what factors consumed the most energy for villagers and what solutions to these demands the villagers would be most likely to integrate.

For example, Johnson focused on energy as his primary concern in Nana Kenieba. Energy use was divided into four main categories: domestic, artisan, public service, and transportation. Each category’s energy use was mapped from energy supply to energy use by tracking the flow from acquisition to transportation, to storage, and finally, use of the energy.

Although most of the important details of his revolutionary methods were left out of the lecture due to the lack of time, Johnson seemed quite open to having conversation over coffee and to providing interested parties with his thesis and additional lecture slides to further explain his work. Interested parties can find him in Boulder by contacting Homer Energy, where he is a postdoctoral fellow.

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