Special Issue Energy Research & Social Science


David Ockwell, Rob Byrne, Ulrich Elmer Hansen, James Haselip, Ivan Nygaard, The uptake and diffusion of solar power in Africa: Socio-cultural and political insights on a rapidly emerging socio-technical transition, Energy Research & Social Science, Volume 44, 2018, Pages 122-129, ISSN 2214-6296, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2018.04.033.


Abstract: This special issue focusses on the now rapidly growing solar photovoltaics markets across various geographies and scales in Africa. Herein we summarise the contributions of the component papers and position them within the context of the sustainable energy access literature. We argue that there is an urgent need for greater attention to the neglected socio-cultural and political dimensions of sustainable energy access, dimensions that are vital to understand if ambitious global commitments to sustainable energy for all by 2030 are to be achieved. Included in this special issue are papers on the systemic and socio-technical nature of energy access transitions; their politics and political economy; gendered dimensions; critiques of their technologically determinist framing and the implications for marginalising local actors; and, perhaps for the first time in the energy access literature, application of social practice perspectives to the energy access challenge. The result is a diverse range of empirically-grounded, theoretically and methodologically novel approaches, providing new insights into and understandings of the neglected socio-cultural and political dimensions of sustainable energy access.

Keywords: Sustainable energy access; Solar PV; Socio-cultural; Political

Innovation systems thinking

Ulrich Elmer Hansen, Cecilia Gregersen, Rasmus Lema, Dominic Samoita, Faith Wandera, Technological shape and size: A disaggregated perspective on sectoral innovation systems in renewable electrification pathways, Energy Research & Social Science, Volume 42, 2018, Pages 13-22, ISSN 2214-6296, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2018.02.012. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214629618301816)

Abstract: The sectoral innovation system perspective has been developed as an analytical framework to analyse and understand innovation dynamics within and across various sectors. Most of the research conducted on sectoral innovation systems has focused on an aggregate-level analysis of entire sectors. This paper argues that a disaggregated (sub-sectoral) focus is more suited to policy-oriented work on the development and diffusion of renewable energy, particularly in countries with rapidly developing energy systems and open technology choices. It focuses on size, distinguishing between small-scale (mini-grids) and large-scale (grid-connected) deployment paths in renewable energy. We explore how the development and diffusion of solar PV and wind technology evolve in these sub-sectoral systems. We find that innovation and diffusion dynamics differ more between small and large than between wind and solar. This has important analytical implications because the disaggregated perspective allows us to identify trajectories that cut across conventionally defined core technologies. This is important for ongoing discussions of electrification pathways in developing countries. We conclude the paper by distilling the implications of these findings in terms of the requirements and incentive mechanisms that shape different pathways.

Keywords: Sectoral innovation systems; Electrification pathways; Renewable energy; Kenya; Mini-grids; Diffusion; Solar PV; Wind energy

Mathilde Brix Pedersen, Ivan Nygaard, System building in the Kenyan electrification regime: The case of private solar mini-grid development, Energy Research & Social Science, Volume 42, 2018, Pages 211-223, ISSN 2214-6296, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2018.03.010. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214629618302731)

Abstract: Given the growing interest in the ability of the private sector to contribute to the goal of providing universal access to energy in developing countries, this study sets out to investigate the practices and business approaches of private actors in the emerging niche of private mini-grid development in Kenya. The paper’s analytical focus is on how niche actors are influencing and creating change in the incumbent electrification regime of grid extension to strengthen and expand the niche for private mini-grids. The analysis shows that, in addition to internal niche processes like the alignment of expectations, learning and network building, niche actors actively engage in various forms of institutional work. The greatest emphasis here is on regulatory institutional work in order to influence legal and economic frameworks, but niche actors also engage in cognitive institutional work to enhance acceptance of the niche technology by constructing a shared world view between niche and regime actors. Interestingly, niche actors also engage in normative work to establish positive normative associations with the private-sector model, like equity and social justice. The research concludes that in this case institutional work is collective work drawing on different mandates and relying on different skills and resources.

Keywords: Institutional work; Solar PV; Mini-grid niche; System building; Kenya

Social practice perspectives

Festus Boamah, Eberhard Rothfuß, From technical innovations towards social practices and socio-technical transition? Re-thinking the transition to decentralised solar PV electrification in Africa, Energy Research & Social Science, Volume 42, 2018, Pages 1-10, ISSN 2214-6296, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2018.02.019.


Abstract: Technical innovations feature prominently in the current ‘energy transition’ debate in Africa but societal adaptation issues seldom receive a thorough airing. The mediating role of ‘societal conditionings’ in the adaptation to new energy technologies and the outcomes of such energy-society interrelations can offer some important insights. A study in Ghana shows a recent enthusiasm for Solar Home Systems (SHS) as power back-ups in residential facilities due to high/convoluted tariffs, perceived corruption and inefficiencies in the state-driven/centralised provision of electricity. A new class of “energy-elites” whose livelihoods and lifestyles require uninterrupted access to electricity sought to gain some autonomy in electricity provision and consumption by investing in power storage devices (e.g. power inverters and batteries) or fuel-powered Generator-Sets for use during unexpected frequent power outages. These infrastructures supported self-organised electrification initiatives only on ad hoc basis but SHS provided avenues to sustain that societal quest for autonomy. Achieving this autonomy, nonetheless, required SHS users to restrict their practices to energy services easily enabled by SHS alone, or adjust social practices according to the extent to which they intended to depend on the state-driven provision of electricity. The vision of energy autonomy and resultant societal practices are indeed realised through the use of SHS technology; the overarching driving force is the dynamics of energy-society interrelations. We therefore hypothesize that the adaptation to decentralised solar PV systems in Africa cannot be reduced solely to technical innovations nor even financial considerations but is instead dependent on how these factors intersect with social practices, the quality of the state’s electricity services, etc. to shape societal energy visions.

Keywords: Solar home systems; Socio-technical transitions; Social practices; Energy transition; Energy visions; Ghana

Kirsten Ulsrud, Harald Rohracher, Tanja Winther, Charles Muchunku, Debajit Palit, Pathways to electricity for all: What makes village-scale solar power successful?, Energy Research & Social Science, Volume 44, 2018, Pages 32-40, ISSN 2214-6296, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2018.04.027. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S221462961830389X)

Abstract: This article presents new empirical research on what it takes to provide enduring access to affordable, reliable and useful electricity services for all. We analyze and synthesize the long-term experiences with three different systems for village-scale solar power supply in India, Senegal and Kenya. Since this scale of electricity provision forms part of village infrastructure, it requires particular types of knowledge, policies and support mechanisms. This research therefore investigates how village-scale solar systems can be designed, implemented, sustained and replicated in ways that make them accessible and useful for the community members. Drawing on a socio-technical and practice-oriented approach, we show that the electricity system’s degree of adaptedness to its social context affects many important qualities of the system such as the relevance of the available electricity services for the people, the system’s operational and economic sustainability and the potential for replication. Achieving such adaptation notably requires a flexible approach on the part of implementers, funders and local actors before, during and after implementation. We also show the need for institutionalization of decentralized electricity provision, discuss the current ambiguities in policies, regulations and funding mechanisms for village-scale solar power, and provide recommendations to policy makers and donors.

Keywords: Village-scale solar power; Solar mini-grids; Economic sustainability; Affordable electricity access

Tanja Winther, Kirsten Ulsrud, Anjali Saini, Solar powered electricity access: Implications for women’s empowerment in rural Kenya, Energy Research & Social Science, Volume 44, 2018, Pages 61-74, ISSN 2214-6296, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2018.04.017.


Abstract: This paper examines the gendered implications of various types of electricity access in rural Kenya spanning from the central grid to solar-based systems such as community projects, village scale supply and private solar home systems (SHS). Drawing on material collected in Homa Bay and Kitui counties in 2016, the paper examines the gendered set-up, organisation and effects of solarpowered electricity access as compared with the central grid. The paper employs a framework for analysing women’s empowerment through electrification, which draws on Kabeer, Friedman as well as anthropology, socio-technical system theory and practice theory. The results show that people tend to cherish solar-based solutions whereas the grid is perceived to be costly, unreliable and unavailable. As to the gendered organisation of supply, men dominate within the grid, mini-grids and private suppliers, leaving an important potential for women’s empowerment untapped. Two community projects included women’s ‘hands-on’ participation and spurred local discourses about women’s capabilities. Access is also gendered on the user side. Because men tend to own the houses, have a higher income and a moral right to make major decisions, fixed connections and high subscription fees provide women with less agency than what is the case in decentralised systems of supply.

Keywords: Gender relations; Agency; Electricity access; Women’s empowerment

Simon Batchelor, Ed Brown, Jon Leary, Nigel Scott, Alfie Alsop, Matthew Leach, Solar electric cooking in Africa: Where will the transition happen first?, Energy Research & Social Science, Volume 40, 2018, Pages 257-272, ISSN 2214-6296, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2018.01.019. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214629618301087)

Abstract: Whilst the rapid spread of solar photovoltaics (PV) across Africa has already transformed millions of lives, it has yet to have an impact on the main energy need of poor households: cooking. In the context of falling global PV prices, recent advancements in battery technology and rising charcoal/fuelwood prices in severely deforested regions, the door is opening for a potentially transformative alternative – solar electric cooking (PV-eCook). While initial investigations focused on solar home systems sized for cooking (cooking device, battery storage, charge controller and PV array), it has since been shown that battery-supported electric cooking (eCook) can also strengthen national, mini, micro and nano grids. This paper presents a multi-criteria decision analysis (MCDA) based methodology, accounting for a wide variety of socio-cultural, political, technical and economic factors which are expected to affect the uptake and potential impact of eCook across a variety of African contexts. It shows the concept has considerable viability in many African countries, that there are significant sizeable markets (millions of potential users), and that within the next five years the anticipated costs of eCook are highly competitive against existing ‘commercialised polluting fuels’.

Keywords: Solar; Photovoltaic; Sub Saharan Africa; eCook

Iwona Bisaga, Priti Parikh, To climb or not to climb? Investigating energy use behaviour among Solar Home System adopters through energy ladder and social practice lens, Energy Research & Social Science, Volume 44, 2018, Pages 293-303, ISSN 2214-6296, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2018.05.019. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214629618304961)

Abstract: Solar Home Systems (SHSs) and other off-grid solutions have shown promise in addressing the energy access gap for those with no or unreliable grid services. With that promise comes the expectation to boost socio-economic well-being of newly-connected households, who will continue climbing up the energy ladder. Despite the growing appreciation for the need to go beyond the techno-economics of energy access, and the recognition of the value of socio-technical systems perspective, the wider sociology of energy consumption and behaviour among adopters of off-grid solar solutions has been poorly explored. In this paper, we apply the Social Practice Theory (SPT) and the energy and solar energy ladder framework to analyse energy consumption and the changing social practices of SHSs users in Rwanda. We find that social practices change dynamically and depend on available appliances, whereas energy consumption follows a complex path but does not increase in a linear manner with time or more appliances. Insights can prove useful for public and private agencies working on off-grid electrification, offering a new perspective on the energy and solar energy ladder concepts while also showing the importance of social aspects of energy access even at relatively low levels of provision currently offered by SHSs.

Keywords: Solar Home Systems; Social practice theory; Solar energy ladder; Rwanda

Politics and political economy

Judit Rodríguez-Manotas, Padmasai Lakshmi Bhamidipati, James Haselip, Getting on the ground: Exploring the determinants of utility-scale solar PV in Rwanda, Energy Research & Social Science, Volume 42, 2018, Pages 70-79, ISSN 2214-6296, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2018.03.007. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214629618302305)

Abstract: Solar PV is gaining ground in low and middle-income countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa where a change from donor to more market-driven investments has been observed. This article contributes to energy transition research in low-income countries, taking Rwanda as a case study and focusing on the factors that determined the implementation of what was the largest on-grid solar project, upon completion in 2014. The multi-level perspective (MLP) is used to structure our analysis of the various socio-technical levels, and their interaction, to better understand the conditions that are enabling this transition. Our analysis reveals the central importance of bureaucratic and regulatory support for investment in low-carbon energy technologies, within a political economy influenced by processes of neo-liberalisation, while creating significant space for private contract negotiation. In particular, the provision of legal and financial guarantees was crucial to reduce risk for foreign capital investment, revealing contradictory forces that both promoted market rule, while limiting private capital’s exposure to competitive pressures. We also focus our analysis on the aspect of control and driving forces, in particular the role of development partners and private sector project champions.

Keywords: Energy transition; Multi-level perspective; Rwanda; Solar PV

Rob Byrne, Kennedy Mbeva, David Ockwell, A political economy of niche-building: Neoliberal-developmental encounters in photovoltaic electrification in Kenya, Energy Research & Social Science, Volume 44, 2018, Pages 6-16, ISSN 2214-6296, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2018.03.028. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214629618303189)

Abstract: International agreements on energy access and climate change, formulated according to neoliberal orthodoxy, will drive significant finance to developing countries for clean technology investments. But critics call for more active state intervention – a developmental approach – arguing that free markets alone will not deliver what is required. This creates the potential for confrontation between contradictory ideologies in national policymaking and implementation: neoliberalism in global agreements versus developmentalism in national policy. The Kenyan photovoltaics (PV) market has long-experienced neoliberal-developmental policy interactions, reflecting on which can illuminate how such encounters might unfold in the future. We construct a new ‘niche political economy’ theoretical framework to analyse these past interactions, constituting one of three contributions we offer. The second is empirical, showing how PV practitioners, national policymakers and global development actors have negotiated their policymaking encounters over time. Our third contribution offers reflections on the issues explored, discussing what this might mean for future neoliberal-developmental encounters. We find that action on the ground will emerge from messy negotiated interactions between competing ideologies rather than be determined by powerful neoliberal actors. As such, realising global energy and climate ambitions becomes even more uncertain unless long-term active niche-building resources are secured in international agreements.

Keywords: Political economy; Strategic niche management; Sustainable energy access; Kenya

Critical perspectives on the framing of energy access

Jamie Cross, Declan Murray, The afterlives of solar power: Waste and repair off the grid in Kenya, Energy Research & Social Science, Volume 44, 2018, Pages 100-109, ISSN 2214-6296, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2018.04.034. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214629618304055)

Abstract: One neglected socio-cultural and political dimension to the rapid diffusion of solar power in Sub-Saharan Africa is the question of what happens when things fall apart. Investors in the small-scale renewable energy sector are increasingly concerned with the status of broken or non-functioning products and there is an emerging consensus around the need for centralised recycling systems as the solution to future flows of ‘solar waste’. But what does the afterlife of off-grid solar products look like from below? Grounded in anthropology, geography and economic sociology, this paper tracks the impact of off grid solar products through contexts of breakdown, repair, and disposal. Combining stakeholder interviews, a longitudinal survey of product failure rates in Kenya and ethnographic research at a repair workshop in the town of Bomet, we challenge narratives of energy transitions that fail to address the environmental consequences of mass consumption and present an alternative approach to solar waste embedded in cultures and economies of repair.

Keywords: Solar; Waste; Repair; Off-grid; Kenya; Sub Saharan Africa

Gillian Davies, Clean energy product markets in sub-Saharan Africa: Complex market devices and power asymmetries, Energy Research & Social Science, Volume 42, 2018, Pages 80-89, ISSN 2214-6296, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2018.03.009. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214629618302494)

Abstract: Low levels of access to modern energy services in sub-Saharan Africa combined with increasing awareness of climate change have made domestic-scale sustainable energy products, such as solar lanterns and improved efficiency cookstoves, popular within international development programmes. Following the turn towards private sector approaches to deliver basic services in the global South, many organisations of different types are trying to establish market infrastructure for these energy products to reach the ‘consumers’ they are designed for. This paper examines certain socio-technical arrangements within these market systems and identifies areas where they can inadvertently reinforce inequalities along the value chain, even if consumers are finally reached. Responding to Çalişkan and Callon’s call for more research into marketisation processes and drawing on the concept of ‘market devices’, the paper identifies three market devices as case studies: warranties, carbon credit frameworks and product standardisation tools with related certification schemes. Discussion of these devices is informed by ethnographic research in Kenya, Uganda and Malawi.

Keywords: Sustainable energy; Energy access; Solar lanterns; Improved efficiency cookstoves; Market-based approaches; Marketisation; Market devices; Black boxes

Hilton R. Simmet, “Lighting a dark continent”: Imaginaries of energy transition in Senegal, Energy Research & Social Science, Volume 40, 2018, Pages 71-81, ISSN 2214-6296, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2017.11.022. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214629617304371)

Abstract: Electrification is increasingly proposed as a solution to the problem of Africa’s development. International organizations hope to light ‘a dark continent’, converting solar panels and global investment into jobs and thereby aiding Africa’s emergence into the global economy. Such straightforward expectations, however, are at odds with longstanding research in Science and Technology Studies (STS) and on-the-ground realities. This article examines the proposed energy transition in Senegal, drawing on over eight months of ethnographic observation at three sites: an energy conference in Dakar; the National Ecovillage Agency (ANEV), a body implementing the national energy project; and an energy development NGO designing alternative solutions for Africa’s poor. Using the STS concept of sociotechnical imaginaries, this article highlights two visions of the transition: an internationalist discourse in which technologies like solar panels, supported by foreign aid, are expected to transform society; and a locally embedded approach in which social conditions determine desirable futures, assisted by technology. The former is shown to create dependence on the universalist imaginaries of the industrial world, while the latter is reduced to a scramble for development projects and funding. Africa’s emergence, I argue, requires greater attentiveness to social and political institution building than to kW-hours and foreign dollars.

Keywords: African energy transition; Electrification; Sociotechnical imaginaries; STS

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