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Communities First: A Participatory Approach to Building Sustainable Renewable Energy Minigrids

Disrupting the energy access paradigm by anchoring minigrid planning and management within communities.

Photo of Scott Kennedy
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*Please Upload User Experience Map (as attachment) and any additional Beneficiary Feedback in this field

We explored our assumptions through 3 research activities: - a classroom-based Minigrid Game demo - a quick survey to microhydro developers - field visit to 3 villages in Sabah, Malaysia We've uploaded attachments with more details on our User Experience Map and field notes. Our survey question and results are at this link: Take a look and give us feedback!

Explain your project idea in two sentences.

The Minigrid Game enables off-grid, marginalized communities to collaboratively design a village-wide renewable energy system. We create a bridge between community members and minigrid developers.

What is your organization name? Explain your organization in one sentence.

Energy Action Partners strengthens communities through collaborative energy access programs.

Is this project idea new for you or your organization? If no, how much have you already executed on?

No. We developed a working prototype of a digital-only version of the game, which has been tested in classroom environments. We crowdfunded $3,628 in 2016 for prototype development and received a grant of $22,350 for a field demonstration and dissemination to microhydro developers in mid 2017.

What is the problem you aim to solve with this idea? How would you define this problem as urgent and a priority in your target community?

Globally, energy access programs under-emphasize community participation and focus instead on technical, financial and regulatory challenges. A lack of community engagement leads to poor program design, no local maintenance, system abandonment, wasted resources and limited community benefit.

What is the timeline for your project idea? What are the key steps for implementation in the next 1-3 years?

Prototype Testing & Refinement (now - 6/2018): Improve digital & physical versions of game based on 5-10 community trials; Partner with Project Developers (9/2017 - 12/2018): 4-5 minigrid developers in Southeast Asia and India to utilize game in actual projects; Dissemination (8/2017 - 12/2018): Present results in 3-4 key international events on energy access; Influence Policy (2019): Work with funders and multinational organizations (e.g., IRENA) on best-practices for community engagement.

Describe the individual or team that will implement this idea (if a partnership, please explain breakdown of responsibility).

Our team at Energy Action Partners comprises experts in: off-grid energy system policy and planning; renewable energy technology; gender & community development; & user-centered product design for resource-constrained communities. More bios at:

What do you need the most support with in this project idea?

  • Program/Product/Service Design

What is your primary goal over the next 6 weeks of Refinement?

  • Iterate or improve on my product/service

How do you currently measure (or plan to measure) results for this project?

Quantitative Metrics: Uptake - # of partnerships with project developers Scale - # of communities utilizing our approach Usefulness - # of partners using tool more than once Application: # of deployments leading to minigrid construction/revision Qualitative: Reported usefulness of tool & process by minigrid developers Reported benefit by community members in terms of: - improved understanding of minigrid operations & economics - improved ability to impact system design and management

How has your project proposal changed due to your user research during the Beneficiary Feedback Phase?

Microhydro developer survey: Existing networks (e.g., HPNET) are good distribution channel (see survey here: Community visits: Community mapping activities are needed prior to gameplay (see Field Notes in attachments). Game testing (college students): We can increase realism of game with demand-side management features and pre-paid metering options.

(Optional) What are some of your still unanswered questions or concerns about this idea?

Our current version of the Minigrid Game is played on digital devices (laptops or tablets). We are also designing a physical console for a more tactile experience. We are unsure which type of users prefer a digital device vs a physical console.

During this Improve Phase, please use the space below to add any additional information to your proposal.

-Idea Refinement and Borneo Field Trial- We are excited to be running the latest version of the Minigrid Game in three villages in Sabah, Malaysia on June 17-20. Preparation for the planning workshops is described in our attachment "FieldNotes.pdf". Our preparation for the field trial and comments through the OpenIDEO forum have helped us refine a few aspects of our idea related to: (1) an additional use case and (2) DSM & metering integration. Additional Use Case: Our initial use case focused on designing minigrids for communities without any existing power system. While this remains a key application, we would also like to target communities with an existing minigrid that is poorly managed or even non-functioning, especially in our early phase. As we are learning from the villages in Sabah, Malaysia, the utility of the Minigrid Game is quickly appreciated by community members who are currently wrestling with disagreements on tariffs, maintenance, load management and other issues. By focusing on communities with existing minigrids, the project timeline is shorter, benefits are realized more quickly, and we are able to learn and disseminate our approach faster that would be possible by only working on projects involving new minigrid construction. Demand-side Management Integration: Feedback from villagers as well as reviewers have emphasized that the outcomes from the Minigrid Game should be immediately implementable. Many decisions will require no additional hardware (e.g., a tariff increase or new penalties for theft) and can be implemented once consensus is reached. However, some may require additional hardware and require time for purchasing and installation. We have started discussions with a design team working on low-cost electricity meters that could incorporate a menu of demand-side management (DSM) options into their meters. Examples could include time-of-use pricing, warnings on system instability, pre- and post-paid capability, automatic curtailment, and other options. We are excited about incorporating more DSM options into the Minigrid Game that mirror the functionality of these meters. Through use of the Minigrid Game, we also expect recommendations from community members on new functionalities that could be incorporated into the meters. Partnering with an electricity meter development team would require additional resources, but would be an exciting way to bring user-centered design principles into the development of low-cost energy meters for minigrid applications.

Energy Action Partners aims to substantially enhance the sustainability and social impact of electricity access programs by shifting decision-making power from external developers to local communities. We have developed a novel game-based planning tool that enables local actors and institutions to learn about and direct the design and management of renewable energy based minigrids. Our approach prioritizes processes that directly build upon existing local capabilities. We strive to counter the view that marginalized communities are passive recipients of technology, and that infrastructure alone is sufficient for sustainable development. 


Access to modern and sustainable energy services is a well-recognized and critical enabler for human development, leading to more effective natural resource management, creation of local economic opportunity, and revitalization of rural communities. As technology has improved and costs have dropped, there is growing consensus that local minigrids, powered by renewable sources, are the right infrastructure for reaching hundreds of millions of individuals still without access to electricity. In order to scale-up renewable energy and minigrid deployment, the international community is focused on overcoming commonly identified barriers of: (1) access to finance, (2) technical and business skills, and (3) the institutional and regulatory environment.

From our experience working with communities and developing renewable energy minigrids, we recognize these barriers, but we also see a major blind-spot in the consensus view on energy access priorities. Many systems fail not because financing was not available, the technology didn't work or the right policy wasn't in place, but because the local community was not engaged in the process. Lack of community engagement frequently leads to unmet expectations, misunderstanding of priorities, poor cost recovery, electricity theft, and fundamentally a lack of cooperation and community investment that is required for success. Neither additional resources nor technological tweaks can compensate for a flawed process. 

Community engagement is frequently mentioned as a "best-practice" approach, but it is often misunderstood at best or simply paid lip-service at worst. What the energy access community and minigrid developers desperately need, are adaptable processes and tools that they can use to substantively engage communities in the planning and management of their own local energy system. 

The Minigrid Game 

With input from local communities, minigrid developers, community development experts, and a variety of other stakeholders, Energy Action Partners has developed a participatory tool and process called the Minigrid Game that allows community members to partner with project developers to design a community-based renewable energy minigrid. Players of the game must work cooperatively to build and operate a functioning minigrid that serves the needs of their community. Actions are both individualized, such as purchasing and operating appliances and managing an energy budget, as well as collective, such as sizing the system, setting tariffs and designing load management schemes. The players are faced with unexpected challenges such as income disruptions, storm damage, or electricity theft and must find ways to ensure the system remains financially viable and meets the whole community's electricity demand. Utilizing a game format not only increases engagement and the accessibility of the topic, but also allows a facilitator to address sensitive subjects such as theft and vandalism in a direct and experiential format. 

Some of the important outcomes from playing the game include:

  • Intuitive understanding of minigrid operation and economics including the  impacts of individual decisions on system behavior;
  • Collaborative agreement of key management decisions such as expected demand, system capacity, pricing, load management, and penalties for underpayment or theft - all of which can leverage existing norms and institutions already within the community;
  • Identification of local individuals and institutions to play a central role in minigrid operations and management; 
  • And most importantly, a recognition and utilization of local knowledge and skills.

More details on the game are provided at our website and in the answers to the questions below. 

Bridging Planet, Prosperity and Peace

It has already been mentioned that access to sustainable energy improves natural resource management, reduces pollution from traditional forms of energy, and provides enhanced opportunities for employment and income generation. We believe the Minigrid Game can not only strengthen these benefits to planet and prosperity, but also contribute directly towards building peace. 


By appropriately sizing a minigrid and ensuring long-term financial viability, the use of other energy sources such as kerosene for lighting or individual diesel generators can be reduced. Improved understanding of financial trade-offs can encourage households to invest in more energy efficient appliances. 


While access to electricity is often assumed to improve livelihoods, this outcome is often not achieved in practice. The challenges of encouraging "productive use" beyond powering lights, cell phones and televisions is well known among energy access practitioners. Productive use often requires investment in machinery, by an individual or the community, and can involve complicated financial trade-offs and compromises. The Minigrid Game is ideally suited to explore options for individual or communal investment in productive equipment, while simultaneously illustrating the direct impact on electricity demand and pricing. 


We strongly believe that a major contributor to conflict is the weakening and demise of community institutions. Unfortunately, electricity access programs can frequently undermine local governance by relying on imported and transactional models for electricity service provision, while ignoring pre-existing institutions and local norms. The pervasive occurrence of electricity theft among minigrid projects is one indicator that something is wrong with the current model. We view the strengthening of community institutions as an ultimate objective of our approach, and not simply as a means to deploy more infrastructure. By building thriving communities we aim to ebb the flow of urban migration, increase local employment, and directly contribute to a more peaceful society. 

Where Are We Now?

Conceptual development of the game started in 2012 as part of a research project on the social and economic impact of energy access programs for marginalized communities. Various versions of the game have since been developed and tested, primarily as a teaching tool, in field-based workshops on energy access and development in India, Indonesia and Malaysia.

We have recently developed an improved prototype and have secured a small amount of funding for a demonstration in three rural villages in the state of Sabah, Malaysia for June 2017.

Community planning session

Where Are We Going?

The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that over 40% of the roughly 1.2 billion people without electricity access will be most effectively served with minigrids. This is a huge market for a technology and delivery model that are still in their infancy. Experience to date has convincingly shown that success of minigrid deployments is frequently inhibited by poor community engagement - an area that receives only superficial attention by the international community. 

We want to highlight this problem and take concrete steps to provide solutions.  We view our contribution along three key action areas:

  1. Demonstrate - gather evidence on the effectiveness of a participatory approach through field trials and continued improvement; (2017 - 2018)
  2. Deploy - partner with community-based organizations, project developers, and financiers to implement community-first minigrids; (2018 - beyond)
  3. Disseminate - spread awareness on community engagement best-practices to the energy access community. (2017 - beyond)

Current Resource Needs

In 2017 - 2018, we need to accelerate through multiple cycles of development, testing, and refinement, with a focus on learning from field-based trials. We have the first set of trials scheduled for June 2017 in three villages in East Malaysia. Grant funding in this space either targets individual projects that serve a single community or supports efforts to standardize and bundle projects to increase their attractiveness to international investors. 

There is very little support for efforts to improve energy planning processes that can incorporate community input and build local capacity. We are very excited about the possibility of working through the BridgeBuilder Challenge to tackle this important problem. 

Who Benefits?

Off-grid Communities- Technology can enable development, but does not guarantee it. Through active engagement in planning their own energy system, community members build the understanding and capabilities for managing their energy resources into the future. Electricity provision is sustained, jobs are created, community governance is strengthened. Minigrid Developers- The Minigrid Game can be a valuable tool for developers to explain the operation and economics of a minigrid, obtain more accurate load profiles, and build consensus on key management decisions. We envision the game as a indispensable component of their project development toolkit. Energy Project Financiers- Failed management of minigrids is a major cause of cost under-recovery and abandoned projects. Establishing and disseminating a new tool and best-practices for community engagement will help to de-risk new minigrid projects and improve the flow of financing.

How is your idea unique?

Our team combines a unique set of strengths: renewable energy technology, energy systems planning, community development, and social entrepreneurship; with an emphasis on empowering communities to manage their own energy systems. Many other organizations apply a more narrow approach - providing energy infrastructure - without the tools or experience for substantial community engagement. In this situation, critical management issues remain unresolved, which eventually undermine the program. Our approach applies principles of participatory development through the novel medium of the Minigrid Game. We explicitly address energy system management challenges by incorporating local knowledge and norms; something that's just not possible without an accessible medium for communication. Developers and off-grid communities alike are very excited about working with the Minigrid Game. Our first trials are evidence of the huge potential for true empowerment through energy access.

Idea Proposal Stage

  • Piloting: I have started to implement my solution as a whole with a first set of real users.

Tell us more about you

Energy Action Partners is a non-profit organization with it's primary work in Southeast Asia and the Horn of Africa regions. Our team is distributed internationally with offices in Boston, USA, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Hargeisa, Somaliland. The management team for the Minigrid Game program includes the following members: Scott Kennedy, Ph.D. (Executive Director, Energy Action Partners) Scott has over sixteen years' experience working as an educator, researcher and practitioner in sustainable energy and human development. He received a PhD in Engineering Sciences from Harvard University and a BSc in Mechanical Engineering from Cornell University. (LinkedIn: Program Role: program management, technical oversight, building partnerships Ayu Abdullah, (Regional Director for Southeast Asia, Energy Action Partners) Ayu believes strongly in the value of service, universal responsibility and in improving lives and eradicating inequality and inequity. Born and raised in Penang, Malaysia, Ayu has BSc and MSc degrees in Aerospace Engineering from Purdue University, and an MSc in Engineering Systems and Management from the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology. (LinkedIn: Program Role: game development lead, community engagement Rusaslina Idrus, Ph.D. (Board Member, Energy Action Partners) Rusaslina has been working on issues related to community development and participatory planning for two decades. Rusaslina received a PhD in Social Anthropology from Harvard University, a Masters degree in Environmental Science from Yale University, and a BSc in Natural Resources from Cornell University. (Bio: Program Role: community development expert Tiffany Tong, Ph.D. (Technology Development Advisor) Tiffany is passionate about leveraging technology to solve some of society’s most fundamental challenges. Employing a human-centered design approach to her work, she uses insights from her diverse field experiences to make good ideas great. For five years, she focused on challenges of energy access and rural electrification in sub-Saharan Africa. More recently, her work is centered on the development of mobile apps to crowdsource economic data from farmers in Ghana. Tiffany received her PhD in Electrical Engineering at Princeton University and her BS at UCLA. (LinkedIn: Program Role: product manager, consultant

Expertise in sector

  • 3-5 years

Organization Filing Status

  • Yes, we are a registered non-profit.
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Attachments (2)


Notes from field visit (May 5-6, 2017) to three rural villages to test assumptions on the interest and utility of the Minigrid Game.


User Experience Map for Minigrid Game


Join the conversation:

Photo of Kate Rushton

Hi Scott,

Thank you for your response to the expert feedback and for being so engaged in the challenge.

Are there any specific types of organisations in terms of geography and sector that you are keen to connect to for this project and in general?

Photo of Scott Kennedy

Hi Kate,

Thanks for the comment. We have three types of partners that we're always on the lookout for:
- Community-based organizations focused on development issues within their specific community
- Minigrid project developers
- Software developers

For the first two, we're currently focused in Southeast Asia and working through the Hydro Empowerment Network. We are also exploring partnerships in India and East Africa. We're looking for community-based organizations with an interest in building local capacity for resource and energy management.

For software development, this is something we've been relying on from a few different small firms, although we'd really like to develop more in-house capacity for this. Financial resources are our main constraint here.

Thanks again for the question. Looking forward to hearing the outcome of the next stage.


Photo of OpenIDEO

Hi Scott and Team!

We’re excited to share with you feedback and questions from the BridgeBuilder team and an external set of experts. We encourage you to think about this feedback as you continue to improve and refine your idea. You are welcome to respond in the comments section and/or to incorporate feedback into the text of your idea. Your idea and all associated comments will all be reviewed during the final review process.

One expert shared: “This is a creative way to engage communities in participatory community planning!”

When thinking about desirability, feasibility and viability here’s what experts shared:
One expert shared: “The idea is desirable. The implementation of the game itself is likely to be feasible. The big question is whether the simulation exercise will effectively lay the groundwork for next steps leading to building sustainable, renewable energy minigrids? It would be useful to have more clarity on how the game links into procurement of a minigrid for the community and how the next stage of barriers will be overcome?”

Human-centered design starts with the people you’re designing for and ends with new solutions that are tailor-made to suit their real needs. How does this idea consider user needs?
• Yes! How can you bake user-centered feedback into your growth strategy?

Outstanding comments and questions:
• “It has potential to be a really interesting innovation to engage communities in ways that could lead to more renewable energy solutions.”

Thank you so much for sharing the important work you are doing!

In case you missed it, check out this Storytelling Toolkit for inspiration for crafting strong and compelling stories: Storytelling is an incredibly useful tool to articulate an idea and make it come to life for those reading it. Don’t forget - June 16 at 11:59PM PST is your last day to make changes to your idea on the OpenIDEO platform.

Have questions? Email us at

Looking forward to reading more!

Photo of An Old Friend

Hi Scott

I love this idea, and just wanted to say thank you for contributing :)
I'm looking forward to keep an eye on this and see how it evolves!

Photo of david

love to hear more about your work and idea sometime... we are getting into solar at Thunder Valley CDC

Photo of Scott Kennedy

Hi David, I'd be interested to hear about your work at Thunder Valley as well. Look for me on LinkedIn: and we can connect through there.

Photo of Kate Rushton

Hi Scott,

Thank you for answering the beneficiary feedback questions and for the user journey. This is incredibly helpful.

In the user journey you mentioned that Augustus might find out about the project from a micro hydropower newsletter, would you be able to give me some specific examples? Is it part of HPNET ( Are there other sources that Augustus could use to get information from?

Are you able to elaborate more on the Program/Product/Service Design support you need? Is it more general or specific? Are there certain types of people you would like to receive feedback from?

Could mini-grids be used in communities like the one mentioned in Navajo Water Project ? As an aside, could the mini-grid also apply to water in water-stressed regions?

Photo of Scott Kennedy

Hi Kate,

Thanks for the feedback. We're still adding to our beneficiary feedback questions, so it's helpful to hear your comments.

HPNET is exactly the type of network that we'd like to use to disseminate the project. We already plan to produce and distribute a webinar through HPNET later this fall. We just announced our project on their forum this week and issued a survey for developers as part of our research for the beneficiary feedback stage. Results will be included as an attachment.

There are a number of forums that we regularly attend that are great platforms to raise awareness (Asia Clean Energy Forum, Sustainable Energy for All, Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, etc.). We plan to participate in panels and offer workshops at these events to reach more developers. We also work with the International Renewable Energy Agency that publishes on best-practices for renewable energy deployment. We expect to work through them to reach developers in Sub-Saharan Africa.

For support, one specific need relates to software development. We are currently working with a full-stack development team, but would like to build more in-house capacity for this purpose. We have a great network of people with expertise in energy system design, community development, minigrid projects, and software development, but a major limiting factor at this stage is the financial resources needed to expand our core team.

The Navajo Water Project looks interesting and appears to have a strong community focus. They mention the communities are off-grid, so I expect that energy for water pumping and heating would be needed. Minigrids could certainly be used in this context to provide electricity, but the density of houses may determine whether a minigrid or individual home systems are better. The Minigrid Game could be used by the community to explore how to build out the community infrastructure, with water pumping and heating as an important use of energy.

Some examples of management issues that may come up in their project that our approach is meant to explore:
- how can the community be involved in setting the water tariff?
- what do you do when someone is late on payments or doesn't pay at all?
- is the community willing to use the funds for maintenance and repairs? how do you know?
- how much water is needed and will the tariff be enough to support the cost?

We try to answer these questions for electricity, but the same approach could be applied to the supply of water.

Hope this answers the questions. Thanks!

Photo of eldy wullur

Hello Scott,
I am very happy with your program involving Indonesia in it. The further to East Indonesia the more you see our backwardness, especially in the field of energy, has been our years of energy crisis. I hope that your next workshop will be held in Eastern Indonesia. The empowerment of village communities is not only in agriculture, livestock but also in the energy sector. Can not wait, please let me know if you are going to Indonesia.

Photo of Scott Kennedy

Hi Eldy,
Thank you for the suggestion to work in Indonesia. We would be very interested to work there. We are partnering with HPNET - the micro hydropower empowerment network - that includes micro hydropower developers across southeast asia, including Indonesia. Our plan is to partner with local developers on individual community projects to build new or improve existing energy systems. Where do you work in Eastern Indonesia? Terima kasih banyak. Semoga kita bisa bekerja sama di masa depan!

Photo of eldy wullur

I am located in Menado, North Sulawesi. Just keep in touch .

Photo of Carolina

I definitely can appreciate this idea because it is bringing the community together, promoting peace between people in a community and helping them develop a solution for issues they face within their community. I also can appreciate that the solutions for energy issues are sustainable ones. looking forward to seeing this project develop farther.

Photo of Scott Kennedy

Thanks Carolina. We appreciate your comment. I like the localized aspect if your own Mobile Training program. I'll post a comment there directly!

Photo of Kate Rushton

Hi Scott!

Interesting project! Thank you for posting. This is a really clear post.

Are you able to share any findings from the field-based workshops?

What is the time commitment for playing the game?

I noticed the following information in the article below:

‘The game was initially developed with the rural microgrid in mind. However, it is gaining attention in the U.S., and could be used, for example, in New York City, where leaders want to enhance resiliency, said Kennedy. Energy Action Partners could change the game slightly for use by a neighborhood association to educate people about costs, available capacity, and how an individual’s behavior can affect the entire system’.

Source: (you might want to include a link to this article in your submission post)

Are you planning any US projects?

Thinking of the next three years, what type of project/projects are you interested in receiving for funding for?

I noticed that you have ‘recently developed an improved prototype and have secured funding for a demonstration in three rural villages in the state of Sabah, Malaysia for June 2017’.

When was Energy Action Partners registered?

Photo of OpenIDEO

Hi Scott!

Community Conference Calls: Have questions or want to learn more from the Challenge management team? Join us for our community conference calls: Monday March 27th or Tuesday March 28th!

Great to have you onboard! We noticed your post is currently unpublished. Was this your intention? We'd love to have it be included in the challenge. You can publish it by hitting the "Publish" button at the top of your post. You can also update your post by clicking on the "Edit Contribution" on top. We're looking forward to seeing your contribution in this challenge.