Community energy and sustainable energy transitions in Ethiopia, Malawi, Mozambique (CESET)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sheffield
Department Name: Urban Institute


The 2019 Energy Progress Report shows the need to step up efforts to link on-grid and off-grid strategies to facilitate access to electricity (EIA et al, 2019). According to the report, eight of the twenty countries with the largest deficits in access to electricity are in East Africa, including Ethiopia, Malawi, and Mozambique. In countries facing such significant gaps in energy access, the rapid adoption of renewable energy may help to deliver access to energy sustainably. The growing availability of renewable technologies in East Africa's countries suggests that such a transition is possible. However, technology alone will not solve the challenge of energy access.

A transition to sustainable energy needs to prioritise the social needs of excluded and disadvantaged groups. Responding to people's energy needs requires institutional, organisational, and financial models of energy delivery that prioritise social benefits over profits.

New models of energy delivery have been developed to involve communities in the design and management of off-grid systems. While the size and technologies used vary, all Community Energy Systems (henceforth CESs) incorporate the perspectives of beneficiaries on electricity generation and distribution through collaborative mechanisms for decision-making. CESs can provide additional capacity to existing grids, provide off-grid services where the grid is absent, and bridge on-grid and off-grid systems.

The project CESET brings together researchers from political science, human geography, engineering and technology providers to understand the role of CESs in advancing a just sustainable energy transition that will bridge the energy access gap in East Africa.

Our focus is in Ethiopia, Malawi, and Mozambique, three countries where there is considerable local enthusiasm about CESs. Proponents of CESs argue that they can foster deep structural transformations in countries facing large electricity deficits. First, by giving ownership to communities, CESs challenge the political economy of energy and reveal energy-related inequalities. Second, by demonstrating new modes of service provision, CESs can diversify the institutional landscape of energy delivery. Third, by incorporating the concerns of the more disadvantaged populations in the design and management of energy services, CESs can respond to their needs directly and generate innovations tailored to those needs.

There is little evidence of how CESs work in practice and their impacts in East Africa because of the shortage of data on CESs, and energy systems more generally. There is a need to renew policy and practice. Research and interventions often rely on technological blueprints that do not fit the institutional and material conditions in which CESs operate. Moreover, conceptualisations of communities as harmonious, homogenous units obscure the multiple forms of exclusion that influence energy access and infrastructure management. There is already an international consensus about the need for disaggregated data to understand the gender gap in energy access. CESET advocates going beyond by considering the intersection of gender with multiple social characteristics that may also lead to exclusion from energy services (such as age, sexual orientation, ethnicity, place of origin).

CESET will produce three outcomes to address this challenge. CESET's theoretical framework will recognise the variety of CESs models and how they interact with multiple variables of community diversity. CESET will also characterise the landscape of operation of CESs in East Africa at three scales: local, national, and regional. Further learning will happen with the activation of a Community Energy Lab in Mozambique to compile evidence of what works in practice. CESET's efforts will lead to the creation of a Regional Energy Learning Alliance to deliver a long-term research programme and support trans-sectorial learning on CESs in East Africa.

Planned Impact

CESET will deliver recommendations to improve the delivery of CESs in situ, which will benefit directly low-income communities. It will provide country-specific evidence on what works for energy access, which will benefit governmental and non-governmental actors working to advance energy access in Ethiopia, Malawi, and Mozambique. It will develop new ways of thinking about community energy, which will benefit ODA-related organisations that question dominant paradigms on energy and development.

1. Low-income communities in the target countries living in under-serviced areas will benefit from the recognition of their role in strategic energy planning. The Community Energy Lab will enable the coproduction of energy services with communities. Participatory workshops will allow communities to define their needs and potential solutions with support from the network of researchers and practitioners involved in CESET. Participants will gain skills and will be empowered by a model of community ownership. CESET's insights on the models that underpin CESs and the intersectional perspective on community energy will support a nuanced consideration of the diversity of energy needs into local, national and international policy.

2. Governmental and non-governmental actors working to advance energy access in the target countries will benefit from policy advice on the diversification existing models of energy delivery. In Mozambique, CESET will benefit Electricidade de Moçambique (EDM), the national public electricity utility. Following a five-year partnership, CESET will work to understand how decentralized energy can support EDM's electrification strategy. In Ethiopia, CESET has an established partnership with the Ministry for Innovation and Technology. CESET will also target the Ethiopian Electric Agency (regulator), the Ethiopian Electric Power (generator), and the Ministry of Water, Irrigation, and Electricity. These agencies focus on household-based solar systems, without tapping into the variety of systems that could transform energy access. In Malawi, impact activities will target the Department of Energy Affairs, responsible for energy policy and for the coordination of energy delivery, and the National Commission for Science and Technology, responsible for the mainstreaming of technological innovation into sustainable development strategies. These bodies require additional information on how CESs can be included in strategic energy planning and sustainable development strategies. CESET's insights on innovation and energy planning will also contribute to planning departments in local governments, NGOs and social enterprises that operate locally with an energy focus (such as our partner Loja de Energias), and technology providers (such as our partners SCENE and the Modern Energy Cooking Services program).

3. ODA-related organisations focusing on energy access engage in activities that challenge mainstream paradigms of international development. CESET will challenge received wisdom on the role of CESs in enhancing energy access. Recommendations about community energy, the gender gap, and the development of an intersectional perspective will inform international energy policy. Working in partnership with the World Resources Institute and the C40 network, we will seek to influence key international organisations including the International Energy Agency, the World Bank Group, and the International Renewable Energy Agency. In the UK, the Department for International Development has promoted initiatives to achieve universal energy access in Africa (e.g. 'Energy Africa Campaign'), and the UK Parliament shows growing interest in the relationship between the Aid budget, energy, and climate change. CESET will provide recommendations for the Aid budget and guidelines for an assessment of community diversity in energy initiatives working in partnership with key policy actors such as the Overseas Development Institute.


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