What works best for Energy Access Projects in Asia?

By Radheeka Jirasinha

When designing or implementing a renewable energy access project, there are several pertinent new questions that need to be asked and should keep being asked. The most important of which is why are you doing it?

"You can do energy access and development as you know for reasons of finance, for reasons of capturing economic value, for reasons of empowerment, for reasons of gender equality, for reasons of the environment, but you can also do it for another reason – and I'm reminded of Albert Einstein's quote, that not until we create a basic standard of living for all people can we ever call ourselves civilised. So you can also do energy access as a way of humanising society and embarking on a way toward a more equitable and just world for all of us”, Professor Benjamin Sovacool.

What Works Best? 
The question that persists in everyday tasks and for the life of a researcher, consumes his or her world.

In one of the latest instalments of its “Change Lecture series”, IFAD invited Benjamin Sovacool, Professor of Energy Policy at the University of Sussex, to come to IFAD and give a talk. Sovacool and his team conducted a five-year research study which compared energy access projects across Asia. Keeping in mind that "there is no one size fits all solution or one energy access solution", the team sought to understand the structure of renewable energy access interventions, and the benefits and challenges faced in order to address the questions of what works best, what lessons can be applied across geographical regions and what lessons have been ignored or forgotten.

The focus on small-scale renewable energy projects is due to a better Levelized Cost Of Energy (LCOE) compared to existing technologies (such as kerosene, the grid etc.), as well as the multitude of climate mitigation and adaptation benefits, and socio-economic development benefits. Utilising energy sources like wind, biomass, solar, biogas and micro-hydro systems will avoid carbon dioxide emissions, reduce deforestation, and create jobs and improve human wellbeing.

Deciding which renewable energy access projects to concentrate on and study in depth proved a colossal task, as an initial desk review brought up 1,156 cases. An extensive eight phase selection process enabled the researchers to narrow down the focus to 10 case studies of renewable energy initiatives in Asia. The 10 case studies were made up of 6 clear cut successful stories and 4 clear failures.

"In all of the failures, planners made the mistake of presuming they knew what technology people wanted and having extremely limited criteria”, said Sovacool. “In Papua New Guinea, you could only buy one type of solar home system, and they [the community] didn’t want it".

The findings demonstrated that understanding different socio-cultural and political contexts is key to implementing a renewable energy project as the "specificity of the solution goes right down to the community". Policy mechanisms and business models are just as important as the technical specificities of renewable energy services. Understanding the different contexts and deciding on which renewable energy sources, carriers and services to use, creates a matrix of intricate complexity.
However, the team found that best practices or design principles do exist in renewable energy access projects. The team identified the common barriers across technical, economic and financial, political and institutional, and social and cultural areas. They found that all countries face at least 4 barriers, whilst some countries face as many as 14 barriers. The team was able to come up with 12 principles that will lead to a successfully designed renewable energy access project, programme, intervention or policy.

These include: i) focus on net beneficial energy access; ii) select appropriate technology and scale; iii) prioritise community commitment; iv) conduct awareness raising; v) provide after sales service; vi) emphasize income generation; vii) encourage institutional diversity; viii) focus on affordability; ix) build capacity; x) be flexible; xi) Always evaluate and monitor and; xii) find or build stakeholder support.

The team concluded that combining the three main findings of their study: i) technology is complex and context specific, ii) business models matter, and iii) best practices exist, creates a new way of dong energy access programs.