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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: https://goo.gl/forms/WfSqVJnV4r7N1Iht1. 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: http://www.enactpartners.org/the-team.html

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: https://goo.gl/forms/WfSqVJnV4r7N1Iht1). 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. 


Background

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. 

Planet

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. 

Prosperity

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. 

Peace

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: https://www.linkedin.com/in/scott-kennedy-653a5b21/) 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: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ayuabdullah/) 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: https://umexpert.um.edu.my/rusaslina.html) 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: linkedin.com/in/tiffanymtong) 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)

FieldNotes.pdf

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

UserExMap.pdf

User Experience Map for Minigrid Game

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Photo of Kate Rushton
Team

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
Team

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.

Best,
Scott

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