A nexus of energy and people: sociology student helps development of microgrids for rural villages

A Rwandan village that the SVM team visited.

Alison Anson is a graduate student of sociology at Colorado State University. She supports the Energy Institute’s Smart Village Microgrid project both as project coordinator and as a researcher of the intersection of energy and sociology.

It might be surprising that a sociologist is on a team dedicated to electric grid development. But Anson is adamant about the value that sociology brings to any projects that involve energy and people.

Her job entails keeping the team on task and focused, ensuring that the research team is writing grant requests and proposals to keep the project moving forward. Anson also delegates roles within the team, and serves as the point person for inquiries about the project.

Electricity and The People Who Use It

The goal of the Smart Village Microgrid (SVM) team is to create small, renewable-energy-driven electrical grids that can operate independently. For rural villages in countries like Rwanda, where the team will set up its first microgrid, access to reliable electricity can be a huge boon economically.

Anson used her sociology expertise to help develop the mechanism for determining the energy needs of individual villages. Known as the Village Electricity Impact Survey, its purpose is to measure the impacts that the microgrid will have on the village. It also helps researchers understand how villagers will use and maintain the grid — if at all.

A typical Rwandan household.

“It’s not a technical problem that causes a failure, but it’s actually that the people using the technology. Either they don’t know how to use it or they’re unwilling to use it. So, by having them fill out this survey, we can better understand if they would find electricity in the area even valuable,” Anson explained.

The questionnaire includes economic, agricultural, and social questions. Anson shaped the wording of the sociological questions and put the survey into an online format, so that it can be translated into Rwandan language and distributed.

An important goal of the survey is “understanding the culture of the village and not necessarily just assuming that they want all the things that we have,” according to Anson.

Villagers might prefer having a hair salon instead of a refrigerator, or a single community TV instead of a TV in each home. The survey allows researchers to build each grid according to the village’s unique needs.

Many Disciplines Make Light(er) Work

When asked about the potential impacts of the project, Anson said that making a replicable and scalable framework for clean energy microgrids is a valuable task. But to her, SVM is also important because of its interdisciplinary combination of research fields.

In addition to Anson’s sociological knowledge, the team includes Dale Manning, an agricultural economist who determines which electrical processes complement which kinds of crops the village grows, and from that extrapolates the electrical needs of the village. A design professor, Juyeon Park, aids in the development of the user interface for the grid, so that it is easy and intuitive to use. Students from the School of Global Social and Sustainable Enterprise in the College of Business help to create business plans that will predict the most efficient uses of the electricity produced by the village grid. The team is headed by Dan Zimmerle, director of the Electric Power Systems Laboratory.

“In terms of creating this interdisciplinary project, where we have the electricity solutions and the social and economic understandings of what’s going on, that nexus, really, is what makes it valuable,” Anson said.

She was drawn to the project because she’s able to bring her sociological expertise to the table, but also because the inclusion of many disciplines aids a holistic, big-picture approach. The team sees its end goal as the successful utilization of a microgrid, and not just the creation of the microgrid technology.

Dr. Dale Manning evaluates village households.

The Social Elements of Energy

Anson received undergraduate degrees in environmental sociology and political science. She recently and successfully defended her graduate thesis in sociology. Her thesis used quantitative algorithms to determine the network of relationships surrounding a specific water policy issue. Her advisor was Jeni Cross, who is also involved with many Energy Institute projects focused on energy and human behavior.

Alison Anson

Anson believes that there is an inherent connection between sociology and clean energy.

“I want to put sociology in places you wouldn’t expect it, and that’s why I love the Energy Institute,” she said.

She thinks that sociological knowledge is particularly important when sending messages to people, like encouraging them to use less energy at home.

“If people were aware of what sociology could add to that, I think these solutions could be implemented a lot more effectively,” she noted.

Anson sees her time at the Energy Institute as an example of her capacity to blend sociology and environmental research. Now that she has completed the Master’s program at CSU, her goal is to stay in Colorado and find a job where she can practice sociology with an environmental spin.