Working papers

Working Paper No. 1 - "Of Monopolies and Mini-Grids: Case Studies from Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria and Senegal"

Recent advances in decentralised renewable electricity systems have undermined long-held assumptions that electricity access and rural electrification can only be achieved via the extension of the national grid. Renewable energy and solar hybrid mini grids are being promoted as one low-cost option to meet Sustainable Energy for All’s commitment to universal energy access by 2030, because of their potential to connect low-income, rural and/or dispersed communities for whom the cost of extending the main grid is considered too expensive. As this paper discusses in relation to four countries in sub-Saharan Africa: Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria and Senegal, in recent years new private sector actors in renewable energy mini grids have started to emerge, marking a shift away from large-scale diesel or hydro mini grids run by government utilities, and small-scale mini grid development previously led by bi-lateral donors and community organisations on a project-by-project basis. However, there have been considerable governance and regulatory challenges to the development and deployment of renewable energy mini grids at scale, which has often taken place in the absence of national regulation rather than because of it. Moreover, some state-owned electricity utilities and associated institutions have been resistant at once to new private sector actors and decentralised systems. Meanwhile, the term ‘mini grid’ lacks a common definition and is simultaneously associated with energy access as well as productive use, despite the often-competing objectives of these end uses. This paper unpacks some of these dynamics through an extensive desk-based study of grey and academic literature and a regulatory comparison of the four case study countries. Building on scholarship from development and energy geography, we argue that a more granular analysis is needed in order to account for the complex and evolving processes of electricity decentralisation in low- and middle-income countries.

Full text available here: Of monopolies and mini grids 220705-FINAL.pdf

Working Paper #2 - "On the Technical Sustainability of Mini-Grids in Developing Countries: A Comprehensive Review of Literature"

In the context of access to electricity, mini-grids have emerged as an electrification strategy in the developing world. However, various technical, economic, socio-political and governance issues militate against the sustainability of mini-grids. Sustainability here is defined as the ability of mini-grids – specifically, those powered wholly or partly by renewable sources - to meet present and future needs for domestic and productive energy uses in a reliable, accessible, efficient and cost-effective manner. The purpose of this paper is to critically review and synthesise the available literature on the technical sustainability of mini-grids with a special emphasis on sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), and highlight lessons for mini-grid projects in the region.

The paper has followed a structured review approach inspired by the systematic review methodology. The review is based on studies published since 2000 (when mini-grids began gaining sustained attention in the SSA region) covering both academic and policy-oriented literature which were identified through searches of various databases and websites using predefined search strings. Specific inclusion and exclusion criteria were then applied to the identified literature and the selected material was analysed using NVivo. The content was analysed around four themes considered important for technical sustainability as follows:

  • Quality of equipment and design or installation issues;
  • Technical indicators used;
  • Technical operations, repair and management;
  • Technical sustainability.

The paper found that the technical sustainability of mini-grids is influenced by system design, construction quality, operations and maintenance and future capacity expansion of the systems. Various choices at the design stage in terms of demand to be serviced, system sizing, construction, component matching, demand management, smart features, and consideration of non-technical issues affect the technical sustainability of mini-grids. Trade-offs for cost minimisation often compromise the flexibility of the system, affecting long-term prospects of the plant. A lack of accurate data on load, resource availability and adequate local skills have also affected mini-grid projects. Although smart systems have been introduced, their effectiveness depends on user-friendliness, robustness, and durability. Furthermore, the quality of installations and construction quality have also adversely affected performance where local skills are in short supply and the quality of supply is compromised. However, the embeddedness of the technology in the socio-cultural, political and environmental context also influences the technical sustainability of mini-grids. The quality of service (in terms of availability, reliability, power quality and adequacy) is directly influenced by the quality of maintenance and system operation. Inappropriate operation of the system for various reasons such as a lack of skilled operators, inability to strictly adhere to operating instructions and local enforcement issues of good practices or absence of user engagement and cooperation affects the plant performance and technical sustainability. Similarly, irregular or inadequate maintenance of the plants due to financial, skills or other constraints (e.g. remoteness of the plant, availability of spare parts, etc.) significantly influences performance. Studies have reported the prevalence of poor operating and maintenance practices in the mini-grid space, resulting in poor consumer satisfaction. Although modular systems offer the advantage of easy capacity expansion to meet future needs, in reality such expansion remains aspirational due to poor financial resources of mini-grids.

Crucially, the paper identifies the limitations of existing frameworks for assessing the technical sustainability of mini-grids and proposes a streamlined yet expanded framework for measurement that incorporates the elements of renewability and adequacy of electricity supply over the long term.

Full text available here: On the Technical Sustainability of Mini-Grids.pdf

Working Paper #3 - "Understanding Business Models and Access to Finance for Mini Grid Development in sub-Saharan Africa"

This paper is based on a comprehensive literature review of publications from academia, industry, governmental and international institutions relating to business models, finance, and operational risks and challenges of mini grids in SSA. Firstly, we investigate the different business models that currently exist for mini grids in SSA and provide insights into the opportunities and challenges of each approach. Secondly, we identify access to finance as a prominent challenge to the further expansion of ‘third generation’ or solar/ solar-hybrid mini grids in the region. In so doing, we explore the different configurations of actors, institutions and processes involved in the provision of finance and investment for the sector. Finally, we examine some of the key investment, regulatory and operational risks and challenges in the sector’s current and future development. Through such a study we shed light on the challenges and opportunities faced by the evolving sector in the region and consider successful approaches and best practices to advance sustainable energy access. 

Despite notable growth in connections to solar or solar-hybrid mini grids in SSA and elsewhere, progress in bridging the rural electrification gap has been slow, with more than 560 million people still lacking energy access in SSA, particularly in remote areas considered too poor to afford cost-reflective tariffs. More clarity is needed between the optimistic promises and enthusiasm expressed in influential energy publications regarding solar mini grid development, and the level and quality of finance available for mini grids in the region. Moreover, while financial sustainability is often regarded as the main challenge for mini grid expansion, there is a complementary need for proven, successful, and scalable business models. 

While the literature points to hybrid ownership, partially subsidised models, a focus on anchor customers, and the bundling of projects into financial portfolios as the most promising business strategies, we argue that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for mini grid business models in SSA. Success depends on specific external and internal challenges unique to each context (Franz et al., 2014; Safdar, 2017). Through our review, we find that an optimistic narrative towards private sector participation may not always translate into greater accessibility and affordability, particularly for geographically remote and low-income users and that while the mini grid sector in SSA has grown significantly in recent years, securing adequate and appropriate external finance remains a key challenge.

Full text available here: Understanding Business Models.pdf

Working Paper #4 - "Mini-Grid Performance Analysis using Data Envelopment Analysis"

Significant progress has been made in recent years towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, and in particular SDG7 on clean energy access. However, if the goal of universal access to energy is to be met by 2030, large-scale investment and rapid and significant action is needed. According to the IEA in 2022, approximately 733 million people still lack access to electricity globally (IEA et al, 2022). Electricity access in many low and middle-income contexts is hampered with reliability issues and supply constraints. Supplies from off-grid and mini-grid solutions are often insufficient for meeting aspirational energy access needs, and struggle to enable economic development (Ulsrud 2020, Bukari et al 2023). While frameworks such as the ESMAP Multi-tier Framework on Energy Access (ESMAP, 2015) have tried to account for variations in reliability, capacity and service quality, there remains a gap in the assessment of the performance of energy access solutions, in technical, economic and social terms. The paucity of evidence-based assessment of determinants of project or programme success has been cited by Duran and Sahinyazan (2021b). 

This paper seeks to apply a well-established quantitative assessment methodology known as Data Envelopment Analysis (DEA), to the energy access space, specifically in assessing the efficiencies of mini-grids in Sub-Saharan Africa. Applications of DEA methodologies to the performance analysis of distributed energy systems are limited in the literature, as are applications looking at electricity access in developing countries. The outcomes of this analysis will be used to propose technical, policy and economic interventions to improve the efficiency of operation of mini-grids, reduce up-front capital costs, enable more efficient supply regimes, and create better energy access outcomes.

Full text available here: DEA for Mini-Grids.pdf

Working Paper #5 - Mini-Grid Sustainability Framework and its Application to Selected Mini-Grids in Kenya

This paper presents an indicator-based framework for the sustainability analysis of mini-grids and applies this to a selection of mini-grids in Kenya. Although various frameworks exist, they have been criticised for lack of attention to long-term perspectives, high data needs, prescriptive nature of the attributes and limited user-friendliness. Considering that data availability is a major concern and that data available is qualitative in nature, this paper proposes a set of indicators and a scoring system that can be used with a broad qualitative understanding of the sustainability attributes of the mini-grids. The paper first presents the framework and the scoring system and applies this to the data gathered from the fieldwork in Kenya. The results indicate that the significant variation in sustainability performance of the mini-grids covered and the performance is relatively poor in social, institutional and environmental dimensions.

Full text available here: Mini-Grid Sustainability Framework and Application to Mini-Grids in Kenya.pdf