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Bringing reliable power to Sierra Leone

Electrical Engineering

Meet the Oxford researcher who’s using his engineering expertise to improve lives in his native Sierra Leone

[Dr Hindolo George-Williams left the Department of Engineering Science in November 2020].

“I am an engineer because I enjoy solving problems – devising solutions with visible impact,” says Postdoctoral Researcher Dr Hindolo George-Williams. And the problem that he’s aspiring to solve is one very close to his heart.

“I have experienced what the lack of access to electricity can do to one’s quality of life,” he says. “I cooked with firewood and charcoal, studied by candle and oil lamp, and have an idea of the number of fire incidents that have resulted from these practices on a national scale.

“For me, contributing to increasing energy access and building sustainable and reliable energy systems in Sierra Leone has always been a dream.”

He’s working to achieve that dream through his research in our Energy and Power Group, led by Professor Malcolm McCulloch. His research interests include improving the risk, maintenance, and performance of complex systems, including offshore oil platforms and nuclear power stations. His primary focus, however, is power systems.

Hindolo characterises his research as taking a “holistic view” of the energy sector in Sierra Leone. He develops social science and technical frameworks that will increase access to electricity and improve the efficiency and reliability of the way energy services are delivered and utilized in the country.

This work is undertaken as part of a team of academics, operating alongside Sierra Leone’s utility companies, Ministry of Energy and other stakeholders, thanks to funding from the UK Government’s Department for International Development.

The group are assessing methods for improving the reliability of the grid and opportunities for productive use of energy in both rural and urban areas, as well as how increased access to electricity can stir economic growth. “Our findings and recommendations will be shared with the relevant agencies and stakeholders, with the hope that they inspire a paradigm change in Sierra Leone’s energy sector,” he adds.

The path to get to this stage has seen him working directly on maintaining diesel generators and commercial fuel dispensing sites, as well as graduating with his PhD from the University of Liverpool. He has long been inspired by energy engineering – but it wasn’t always the plan: “Coming from a Catholic background, I wanted to become a Priest,” he says.

“All this changed, however, when I attended a science fair mid primary school and witnessed fascinating exhibitions of science. Even from such tender age, it was evident that I had a knack for electrical engineering, as I loved connecting used batteries, old motors, and small filament lamps together. I recall telling my parents on a couple of occasions that I didn’t need a candle or oil lamp in my room and that I could light the room from used batteries and filament lamps.”

Hindolo went on to study Electrical Engineering at the University of Sierra Leone. It was during this time that he undertook an internship at the Bumbuna Hydroelectric Power Plant, which he credits with sparking his interest in energy studies. “My time with the Bumbuna project was an eye-opener to the numerous challenges faced by Sierra Leone’s energy sector,” he reflects. “The sector suffers from an acute shortage of qualified local staff, and like most large energy projects in Sierra Leone, more than 80% of the experts working on the Bumbuna project were not from the country. For sustainability, it is imperative to have local technical staff take the lead on these projects.”

“My second source of inspiration came from my first spell at Total Sierra Leone. I saw, first-hand, how much Service Stations spent on fuel and generator maintenance and how the severe unreliability of the national electricity grid affected their profitability.”

It was while working at energy company Total that Hindolo got a chance to see the issues with Sierra Leone’s energy networks up close. “My role was to preserve the operational integrity of the diesel power generators at these sites through the most cost-effective means,” he explains. “I must confess, this was a challenging role in that as a recent and young graduate, I was still grappling with the realities of the transition from theory to practice and having to deal with technicians who were much older and had a slightly different ideology to myself.

“In spite of these challenges, I enjoyed and loved my job - I particularly thrived on its challenging nature, as it pushed me to work harder and learn to deal with people from various socioeconomic, technical, academic, and cultural backgrounds. On the technical front, I liked the fact that every problem posed a different challenge and an opportunity to learn something new. I relished the sense of achievement I felt after fixing a problem.”

Following a Master’s degree in Energy Generation from the University of Liverpool, Hindolo returned to Total in a management role, leading a small team. But, he says: “Even this could not quench my new-found passion for energy system research, honed during my Master’s study.” And so he left to pursue a dual PhD in Risk & Uncertainty Engineering and Nuclear Engineering.

But Hindolo clearly hasn’t lost that love for solving problems. It’s something he brings into his current research, with a detailed plan for how he intends to make a difference. “In the short term, I intend to lead a research project that builds on the findings of my current work and aligns with the development trajectory of Sierra Leone’s energy sector,” he explains. “The project will spin off a startup company that will compete in the private investment space of the energy sector – a space that currently leaves a lot to be desired.

“In the long term, I intend to return home to contribute to the reform of its energy sector and the building of sustainable energy systems. My current research is a dream come true, as it creates the opportunity for me to use my skills and experience to change my people’s lives – a sort of payback to my country.”

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