Historically, electrification in developing countries has been led by efforts to provide centralised, large-scale generation, as was the case in developed countries. Latterly, policies and regulations to facilitate energy transition toward low-carbon generation of energy have on the whole been designed for industrial countries, and then transferred to major developing countries with some success in major emerging countries (for instance in South Africa). These approaches have so far achieved little impact in Least Developed and low-income countries. This is mainly due to the relative weakness of their institutions and of attendant regulatory architectures, and a lack of adequate governance structures to implement them. In the case of many African countries, moreover, planning for energy transitions is made more complicated by the competing priority of increasing access to modern energy services, as well as by the political economy competition between centralised, clientelist states and varying degrees of initiatives towards decentralization and devolution of powers towards local governance structures.
Renewable Energy Technologies (RETs) production and deployment have risen substantially globally, on the back of huge industrialisation and subsequent cost reductions in the order of 80%. In many low-middle and middle-income developing countries the question is, how can the strategic political understanding of many of these countries which is dominated by grid outreach be changed to incorporate the substantial decentralized, off-grid provision that will be necessary to achieve both effective outreach and low carbon transition? If the habit of centralized monopoly can be broken in African countries with small electricity markets by the introduction of RETs, will this lead necessarily to more decentralised systems or, on the contrary, will centralised systems be perpetuated with the same limited number of players? And in the case that decentralised RETs are being implemented will this lead to a democratisation of the energy systems or to the reinforcement of non-democratic local authorities?
The research will survey current practices associated with decentralization and local governance of energy supplies, consider established good practice and look to build routes forward with wider stakeholder communities. It will consider also the evolution of social imaginaries linked to energy transition in African countries, from national governments down to local communities. How can policy-makers in the energy sector integrate RETs in their way of thinking? Do they perceive differences with conventional energy technologies – not just technical differences but also differences in terms of social implications, and do they understand the implications for local governance through formal and informal structures, and any existing political decentralization initiatives? How might perspectives best be changed to enable both RET deployment and enhanced energy access? Are grass roots organisations capable of proposing, developing, operating and maintaining an alternative vision? Do they perceive RETs as having the potential to empower local communities, or as ‘second-hand electricity’? What are the needs of communities not just in terms of energy, but also in terms of the role they can take in meeting those needs and in working with providers to enable access which meets those needs most effectively? What financing models would best enable this? What other elements of regulation can help to enable all of this? What is required to happen amongst governance organisations to enable a shift from the centralised to a decentralised model?