GROWING UP IN LAGOS, NIGERIA, Oladoyin Phillips was accustomed to the power outages that struck just as she was about to use her computer or charge her cellphone. “I was frustrated on those afternoons,” she said, “but I would remind myself that I was lucky because many Nigerians have no access whatsoever to electricity.” When it came time to select an independent research project for her senior thesis, required of all Princeton undergraduates, Phillips chose to examine solutions to Nigeria’s power problems.
Although home to vast stores of oil and natural gas, Nigeria delivers just 2 percent of the electricity typically needed to serve a nation of 168 million inhabitants. Over the last few years, the Nigerian government has privatized the power industry with the goal of improving its efficiency. But Phillips noticed that while Nigeria’s plan called for new power plants, it failed to address bottlenecks in the electricity supply chain. “I saw the opportunity to look at the entire system, from generation to transmission, and to develop strategies for improving the power sector,” she said.
Using skills she acquired while majoring in operations research and financial engineering, Philips analyzed large systems by gathering data and creating computer models. She focused on the natural gas-fired power plants that produce 80 percent of the country’s electricity (the remaining 20 percent is from hydroelectric power).
Warren Powell, professor of operations research and financial engineering, was Phillips’ adviser. “She is the kind of person who, given a few years, could have a real impact,” he said.
Using daily reports compiled during 2013 by the Transmission Company of Nigeria, a publicly owned company appointed to run the power grid, Phillips built a model that simulated the flow of energy from the fuel source to electricity generation, through the national transmission grid, and to distribution points just prior to consumer delivery.
From her analysis emerged a large-scale picture of the bottlenecks at each stage of the chain. One of the surprising findings was that most plants did not operate at full capacity, either due to maintenance issues or a shortage of natural gas. Nigeria has the largest proven natural gas reserves in Africa and the ninth largest in the world, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, but there are not enough gas plants or pipes to bring the fuel to the plants.
Phillips also found that Nigeria’s transmission network was too limited to serve the existing power generated, let alone the planned expansion. The transmission lines were also organized as a radial system with few or no alternative routes for electricity to travel when blockages or backups occur.
Her conclusion: Fix existing bottlenecks before building new plants. “The first and most crucial goal while making investments in the power sector should not be to increase the available capacity in the country,” she concluded, “but rather to ensure firstly, that all of the capacity that is already available, is delivered to the end users.”
Phillips graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Engineering in 2014 and is working at an energy and transportation company based in India.
–By Catherine Zandonella