A land full of contrasts
From steppes and deserts to Caribbean beaches, tropical rainforests, and snow-capped peaks – all this and much more can be found in Colombia. Significant contrasts are also evident in the country’s social and political situation. Although Colombia’s painful past still casts a shadow over the lives of many people, the general situation in the country has changed considerably in recent years. During my five-month research visit from September 2021 until January 2022, I had the chance to get to know a new Colombia – open, innovative and progressive. My visit was part of the Transactive Energy Initiative Colombia which is financed by the Royal Academy of Engineering through an Industry-Academy Partnership Programme. I have been involved with the Transactive Energy Initiative through my PhD research that focuses on the scalability of peer-to-peer (P2P) energy trading – decentralised or local energy markets that allow energy end-users who generate and/or consume electricity to trade energy amongst each other creating a more user-centred approach to future energy markets.
My research visit in Medellín
This is where the Transactive Energy project takes over. It is an initiative formed by the University EIA in Medellín with the involvement of stakeholders like the largest energy utility in Colombia EPM, a digital energy start-up NEU, the PV provider ERCO and UCL. It has so far completed its first pilot project, the Peer-to-Peer Project in Medellín and was in the development phase of the second project the Solar Community while I visited. Because this short article could go over several pages if I describe all the amazing experiences I had in Colombia, I will just outline the highlights. If you would like to know more just drop me a message and we can have a chat.
Colombia’s energy sector
Colombia is a country more than four times the size of the UK with a population of 50 million. As it might come as a surprise to some, Colombia’s energy generation is 68% renewable, mainly consisting of large hydropower plant stations while the rest of the energy demand is met by thermal energy generators. However, in recent years the effects of climate change became increasingly evident. Extreme droughts during weather patterns like El Niño can cause river and water reservoir levels to fall below average and jeopardise the supply. To prevent this, a diversification of the generation mix with non-conventional renewables to achieve a more resilient energy system is required. Negative press has recently emerged around the security risks and the substantial social and environmental impacts of large hydropower projects. An example is the HidroItuango project currently under construction. This will be the biggest generation facility in Colombia with a 2.400 MW capacity which has had serious construction flaws and strong opposition from social and environmental groups. n response, the country has been rethinking the current energy supply. In the past two decades, the Colombian energy regulators have been considering liberalising the energy sector to accelerate the shift towards decentralisation, digitalisation, and efficient energy demand management. However, as for many countries globally, there is still a long way to go to establish decentralised energy models such as P2P energy trading in Colombia’s current energy system.
Visiting the Comuna 13 and the Peer-to-Peer pilot project
In the first week of my arrival together with some colleagues from EIA I visited Comuna 13. Comuna 13 used to be one of Medellín’s most dangerous neighbourhoods during the 90s and early 2000s, but infrastructure and community projects have helped transform this poor neighbourhood into one of the city’s most colourful communities with hip-hop and graffiti being an integral part processing its violent past. A key attraction of Comuna 13 is its bright orange outdoor escalators which have helped this part of the city to be more accessible, being located on the hillside of Medellín. Comuna 13 is also home to one of the participants in the Peer-to-Peer pilot project. Casa Kolacho is a community house that hosts local events, provides graffiti tours, and supports the local hip-hop scene with community space and a recording studio. As part of the pilot project, Casa Kolacho received a PV and battery system. The pilot project consisted of 13 participants with and without PV panels located across the entire city. Participants would come from low- and high-income neighbourhoods and were engaging in small-scale energy trading, that would enable energy transactions based on different energy attributes.
Building the energy community for the Community Solar project
In lower-income neighbourhoods many residents either do not have the financial resources or rooftop space available to install solar panels on their own. Community solar energy projects are great alternatives for people to support and access electricity generation from clean energy technologies. The goal of the Community Solar project was to create an energy community in the local neighbourhood of El Salvador where the revenue streams from selling solar energy to the network operator are distributed fairly across the community. While the community was set up, I had the chance to participate in a few community events organised by EIA. A first event was organised to introduce potential participants to the pilot project and highlight the changes and benefits this project would bring. Signs were put up outside on the street asking the residents to bring a chair and their current energy bill so we could check whether the interested residents were meeting all the necessary criteria to participate. It can be as easy as that: bring yourself and bring a chair and we can chat.
My colleagues from EIA and representatives of the participating companies each gave a speech and answered any questions the residents had. Participants who for example did not regularly pay their bills due to a lack of financial resources were unfortunately excluded from the pilot project. However, community projects such as these could be the perfect opportunity for low-income neighbourhoods to strengthen the community feeling and provide additional income to the neighbourhood.
On the second event, after the suitable participants were selected, we gave a more detailed introduction to the operation and management of the project and the digital platform that would be in use. Again, all residents brought their own chairs, a projector was set up and EIA and NEU, the start-up responsible for the digital platform, presented their technical solution and described the user experience.
I was surprised by the simplicity of the event and the outstanding results it achieved. 24 households signed up for the Solar Community project. However, it also showed how important social ties are in such communities. Most of the time organisations and companies not local to the community are met with a feeling of distrust. In this community, we were lucky that one of the residents also took part in the first pilot project and was seen as a sort of community leader of this neighbourhood. By him trusting us, the community started to trust us too and was ready to listen and cooperate with us. Without the personal connection and the sense of belonging we would have had to break more barriers to develop the pilot project. Since I have left Colombia, the solar panels have been installed and the community project is up and running.
Developing and teaching the User-Centred Energy Masterclass
One of the key purposes of my visit was also to create and conduct a two-day masterclass on peer-to-peer energy market modelling for energy professionals. After weeks of preparing the teaching material, we conducted the masterclass and had a total of 10 participants joining. The energy professionals joined from across the industry amongst others from XM the Colombian system operator and NEU. On the first day, my colleague and I delivered a lecture on market theory, the concept of user-centred energy markets and the different market mechanisms that can be used to integrate local energy markets into current electricity market structures. The whole of the second day was dedicated to modelling a local energy market using python also providing the energy professionals with additional information for further development.
Trip to the Caribbean coast
Finally, I had the chance to join the EIA’s Energy and Development course on part of their end-of-year trip to the Caribbean coast where we visit some of the largest energy generation sites in Colombia. This one-week trip went all along the Caribbean coast from Cartagena over Barranquilla to Santa Marta. We visited the largest oil refinery of Colombia by Ecopetrol, the largest PV solar plant and a sustainable new building site run by Celsia, amongst the largest energy utilities in the countries.
Through a Colombian friend of mine, I also had the opportunity to stay a couple of days with an indigenous family of the Arhuaco people in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. We were very warmly welcomed by them, and they proudly showed us their recently installed islanded PV battery system solution. Their farm is located about one hour away on a Mule from the next accessible road which meant they did not have to carry containers of fuel every other day like they used to.
A lot has been achieved and there is still a lot to do
These are just a couple of insights from my trip to Colombia, but there were so many more experiences worth sharing which would go beyond the scope of this article. Being able to experience the development of a pilot project first-hand and talk to some of the participants involved, it became much clearer to me why the data I used for my PhD research is the way it is and how it can be interpreted. I now have a much better understanding of which behaviour guides the load patterns in the data. It also made me aware of the complexity and importance of social structures and that understanding and integrating them into the development of local energy markets is key to creating a robust system and enabling uptake of such markets in the future. This is true as much for Colombia as it is in the rest of the world, but the structures themselves are always different depending on where you are and require careful analysis before any project can or should be implemented. My conversations with both students and professionals from the energy industry showed me that Colombians are keen to push forward the energy transitions with novel solutions and innovative ideas. Projects such as the Peer-to-Peer energy trading pilot and the Solar Community are inevitable to do so, but changes in regulation must follow to put ideas into action.
Besides my work with the university, I also had the chance to immerse myself in the local community, learn (some) Spanish and get to know the country and culture. Colombians are some of the most welcoming and open people I ever met, and I was able to build a network of inspiring and bright colleagues and friends that will hopefully last a lifetime. I am sure that I will visit again as I only saw a fraction of what Colombia has to offer.
Oh, and one last thing: It’s Colombia, NOT Columbia (in case you don’t want to offend a Colombian )