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.
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:
- Demonstrate - gather evidence on the effectiveness of a participatory approach through field trials and continued improvement; (2017 - 2018)
- Deploy - partner with community-based organizations, project developers, and financiers to implement community-first minigrids; (2018 - beyond)
- 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.