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New Duke Project to Address Energy Needs of World's Poor

December 7, 2017

Duke University is launching a project focused on developing new and collaborative ways to meet the energy needs of some of the world’s most disadvantaged communities, President Vincent E. Price announced Wednesday.

The Energy Access Project was established by a $1.5 million gift from Jim Rogers, former CEO and chairman of the board for the electric utility company Duke Energy, and his wife, M.A. Rogers. The Bass Connections Challenge at Duke University will add $750,000 in matching funds for a total of $2.25 million to support the project’s goal of accelerating deployment of sustainable energy and empowering the world through expanded energy access.

(Duke Energy and Duke University are separate organizations, though both were founded nearly a century ago by noted businessman and philanthropist James B. Duke.)

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    More than 60 attendees from 15 countries gathered May 9-11, 2017 for the second annual meeting of the Sustainable Energy Transitions Initiative (SETI) at Duke University. SETI, founded in April 2016, is an interdisciplinary global collaborative that aims to foster research on energy access and energy transitions.

“Duke University excels at bringing together knowledge across disciplines and a compelling vision to tackle complex global problems such as sustainable energy,” Price said. “We are thankful for this generous gift from M.A. and Jim Rogers, which will support our faculty and staff in discovering ways to make energy access a reality for all.”

Worldwide, an estimated 1.2 billion people live without electricity. Another 1 billion have limited access because of unreliable grids and far more lack access to clean fuels and technologies for cooking. These populations are concentrated mostly in India and sub-Saharan Africa. The lack of modern energy sources has far-reaching implications for global health, climate change and economic opportunity.

Subhrendu Pattanayak, a professor in Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy, serves as faculty director on the project and will lead educational initiatives and build the research network. Jonathan Phillips, formerly the senior advisor to the president and CEO of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) from 2016 to 2017, will lead the project’s applied work and engagement from Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

“Innovative business models, financing arrangements and policy reforms are coming together in a way that has the potential to eliminate global energy poverty in the next decade,” said Phillips, who led OPIC’s $2.1 billion engagement with Power Africa, a project that leverages partnerships to increase investment and expand access to power in sub-Saharan Africa.

“Duke has much to contribute to this fight. I’m thrilled to be joining this engaged community to help find ways to leverage the vast expertise and diverse resources across campus to catalyze change on one of the world’s most pressing development challenges,” he said.

Faculty and staff across disciplines will seek to apply the university’s collective knowledge to develop actionable solutions to overcome on-the-ground challenges. They will, in particular, research how to increase electricity access around the globe and directly engage governments, local communities, utilities, financiers and non-governmental organizations to put those ideas into action. Key collaborators in the effort include the Nicholas Institute, the Duke University Energy Initiative, the Sanford School, the Nicholas School of the Environment and Bass Connections.

The project will also bring students together with faculty and industry experts to develop hands-on solutions as a way to educate future energy leaders. It will build on established programs like Bass Connections, in which Duke faculty, graduate students and undergraduates form research teams to tackle global challenges, and DukeEngage, which provides students with immersive civic engagement opportunities in the United States and abroad.

Another key goal of the project is to create courses to deepen understanding and spur analysis of critical energy-access problems; support fellowships and convene stakeholders; and build collaborations with companies, organizations and governments working to expand the availability of clean energy.

“Based on my experiences at Duke, I am confident that our investment in the faculty and students of the university will generate scalable solutions bringing power to people around the world,” said Rogers, who has been a CEO in the power sector for almost 25 years. Both he and his wife have been advocates for energy-efficiency investment, modernization of electric infrastructure and a low-carbon future.

From 2014 to 2016, Rogers was a Rubenstein Fellow at Duke, twice co-teaching a graduate level course with Tim Profeta, director of the Nicholas Institute. Students in the class designed business models for deploying power technologies in different regions of the world.

Rogers and Profeta also served as co-leaders of a Bass Connections project in which team members explored renewable off-grid electricity solutions for rural populations. Several students continued their work through DukeEngage by traveling to Peru and Indonesia to test solar and wind technologies with community partners.

“The Energy Access Project, funded by the Rogers’ gift, will spark important new collaborations across campus and provide more opportunities for students of all levels to engage in the vital work of creating sustainable energy solutions,” said Edward Balleisen, vice provost for interdisciplinary studies. “The complexity and urgency of this problem demands expertise from many different fields as well as the creative synergy emerging from teams with multiple perspectives and regular engagement with decision-makers in government, industry and NGOs.”