Expert Q&A: Carolina Barreto Discusses the Climate Resilience Lessons from Expanding Energy Access in Africa
Dr. Carolina Barreto, Tetra Tech’s energy access director, has more than 18 years of experience increasing energy access and expanding renewable energy around the world.
She has led teams that helped more than 20 countries and 200 companies connect millions of people to electricity, adopt private sector-friendly energy policies, and embrace cleaner cooking options. Carolina has also designed projects and advised companies on solar home systems, access to finance, navigating regulation, and innovations at the nexus of energy and agriculture.
She is a lead technical advisor to Power Africa; senior advisor on USAID’s Water and Energy For Food (WE4F); and International Energy Advisor for USAID’s Alternatives to Charcoal (A2C) project in Zambia.
Carolina holds a PhD in renewable energy engineering and a Master of Science in solar energy engineering from the University of Massachusetts-Lowell as well as a Bachelor of Science in agricultural engineering from the Universidad Nacional de Ingeniería in Nicaragua.
Following your success in the off-grid energy sector, what do you see as the next shift in how we approach energy access?
The shift is that we stop talking about “on-grid” versus “off-grid” and start talking about access overall and powering livelihoods. Off-grid was once a tiny sector in the developing world; now it is a mature industry, electrifying villages and schools and millions of new customers. My colleagues and I wrote about this shift for the global off-grid solar association, GOGLA. What we see is that just providing electricity is not enough.
Many customers have never changed a lightbulb or bought a refrigerator. People in remote areas must travel long distances to purchase or fix something. In Kenya two million customers got electricity and then stopped topping up their meters because it was too expensive and inconvenient. Integrating these customers into energy services means thinking more broadly about what the service is: not “the grid” or “off-grid,” but appliance demonstrations and financing and repair.
Interestingly, many off-grid startups are now as big as traditional utilities and face the same challenges. They also have lessons to share with utilities, including for climate resiliency in North America. Companies that started by electrifying homes in Africa now offer remote monitoring to high fire-risk areas like the state of California. Off-grid technologies like mini-grids can connect to the main grid but switch to “island mode” to provide power during a disaster, as they have in Puerto Rico during hurricanes.
Are governments and donors such as development agencies or multilateral banks taking a more holistic view of energy access?
There is more funding for energy access now, not just off-grid. COVID-19 was an informative case study. Many governments started treating off-grid companies as essential services and providing subsidies during quarantines, just like traditional utilities. This was a big signal that governments are not willing to let energy access services fail. Governments, donors, and the private sector have all acknowledged that this model is here to stay.
Donors also need to understand that access is not just about electrifying homes. It is also about supporting commercial and industrial clients, from creating jobs in the hospitality industry to enabling agricultural exporters to comply with climate production requirements. In addition, public service entities can spend more on social services if they reduce energy consumption. Investors see that potential—for example, a Japanese car manufacturer recently invested in a solar solutions company we work with that serves hotels, hospitals, and social infrastructure across East Africa. It’s good for the car maker’s business and for the environment. I increasingly expect to see that kind of investment from donors too.
Where do you see the most exciting opportunities for energy innovation?
Electric vehicles, or EVs. They merge on- and off-grid tools and ideas. The challenge is figuring out how to make them affordable. We want to avoid carbon emissions, but we need a just transition where everyone has access to EVs. Not just cars and buses in cities, but also tuk-tuks and motorbikes in rural areas. We need to find strategies that bring services like EVs to different kinds of customers.
EVs are also part of digitalization, which the sector has talked about for a while but has not yet implemented to its full potential. One example is smart meters: there’s this thinking that if you deploy prepaid meters, you have a smart grid, but there’s no point in installing smart meters without a dispatch platform and data visibility. Data can be a lot of waste if you don’t do something actionable with it.
How is Tetra Tech making sure energy projects bring positive impacts for communities?
There is finally an understanding that project impacts need to trickle down to communities—it is not enough to build renewable energy and lower costs. As an engineering firm, we have deployed terawatts of energy around the world, and that’s positive! We are decarbonizing grids. But communities are not necessarily seeing the impact. Those two million customers in Kenya who stopped topping up their meters show how we need to go further to understand what communities want and how these projects impact them. For example, Tetra Tech worked with local leaders in Kenya to develop a Guide To Community Engagement. Those best practices should be used in all projects.
Tetra Tech brings broad skills—transmission engineers, renewable energy auction experts, and access specialists—to collaborate on projects, which lets us share lessons on community engagement and scale up solutions. Having teams with wide expertise—not just in energy, but also governance, agriculture, and rural development—just a text message away means we can transfer knowledge easily from Malawi to Thailand to Indonesia to Colombia. That’s how we go further.