Robyn Meeks, Assistant Professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy and affiliate faculty at the Duke Center for International Development (DCID), is working on important research on water and energy technologies for sustainable development.
As an economist with a focus on environmental and development economics, Meeks explains the broad themes of her work: “Much of my work is focused on trying to understand how households and individuals or even firms and small businesses, respond to different energy and water technologies, policies, and types of infrastructure. We often have hopes for certain technologies, and we are trying to understand if people respond in the way we expect them to, if [the technologies] have the benefits that we had hoped they would or if they might lead to unintended consequences.”
Meeks’ current research takes the form of a working paper titled “The Economic and Environmental Effects of Infrastructure Improvements: Evidence from Pakistan’s Electricity Sector.”
“In the context of Pakistan, we are thinking about a few different things. First, a lot of the electricity generation is fossil fuel-based, so it comes with carbon emission concerns regarding climate change. Also, there is a problem with electricity sectors in many developing countries where there are high technical losses due to engineering and non-technical losses through energy theft.”
Meeks further expands on the occurrence of energy theft, describing, “You may think that these people are not well off, so [electricity theft] should be okay. But, often, individuals are paying powerful people in their communities for access to electricity, and these people are taking the rent and not giving it to the electricity utility. This is a problem for a few reasons: One, [electricity utilities] don’t get the money, so they cannot invest in the infrastructure needed to make electricity services more reliable. This is also a problem because it leaves people with less incentive to conserve electricity and becomes a source of inefficiency.”
Meeks’ research has thus sought ways in which the electricity utility can reduce losses and observe the impacts these changes have on electricity generation and the proxy measures for CO2 emissions.
“We have been working on a paper looking at a technology that the electricity utility in Karachi, Pakistan, has implemented over several years. They are replacing the standard, cheaper wire that people can illegally connect to and steal electricity from with bundled and insulated cables. We find that electricity theft and electricity generation are going down and we are also finding reductions in CO2 emissions.”
“The losses remain, however. So, now we are working with the electricity utility to increase consumer trust in the electricity utility…. The hope is that increased trust and transparency might further help reduce electricity theft if people understand where their money is going and how their bills are generated,” Meeks adds. If losses are reduced, then the electricity utility could potentially invest more in the electricity infrastructure, potentially improving the quality of electricity service. This is important in Pakistan, as well as many other countries, where electricity services are unreliable and negatively impact various aspects of life.
Speaking of future steps in her research, Meeks says, “Our next step is implementing a randomized study with the utility to see the impacts of non-technological interventions.” Meeks will complete this project with Zhenxuan Wang, a Ph.D. candidate in Duke University’s Program in Environmental Policy.
“When we provide certain services or infrastructure, trying to understand the impact of these changes on development and increasing the benefits of these technologies relates our research to international development,” Meeks concludes.
Robyn Meeks came to Sanford in 2017 She teaches classes on impact evaluations in energy and development as well as quantitative evaluation methods.
Written by: Zoé Murphy, DCID Communications Assistant