social research on off-grid solar conference

december 2015

The Social Research on Off-Grid Solar (SROGS) conference took place at UCL on 9 and 10 December. It was jointly organised by Declan Murray (School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh) and I.

This two-day event saw speakers and attendees from a diverse range of disciplines get together to discuss a variety of themes around off-grid solar solutions for energy access in Sub-Saharan Africa, South-East Asia and Latin America. Presenters included academics, PhD students, private sector representatives, policy makers, practitioners, physicists and engineers, which provided a solid overview of the sector and the challenges it is (and has been) facing since it came to prominence in the 1990s.

Dr. Rob Byrne from Sussex University presenting his research.

Dr. Rob Byrne from Sussex University presenting his research.

The series of presentations and breakout group discussions focused on existing business models and technology designs, linking them to the user experience and the ways in which users and customers are included in (or excluded from) those processes, and how that could be changed to better reflect their needs and aspirations throughout the whole value chain: from product design to after-sales services and dealing with solar waste.

Socio-economic impacts and what they mean for the users, including women and marginalised communities as particularly vulnerable groups, were given a lot of attention, though it quickly became clear that there still remains a lot to be done in order to fully understand what actual impacts off-grid solar has on users, and how exactly it is utilised within households.

And what about financing? It is frequently one of the biggest hurdles to the scale-up of off-grid solar. Ideas on how to tackle this problem triggered a heated discussion, with some suggesting a move away from cash payments to a barter model, where users can exchange goods for energy access (examples include similar models among women entrepreneurs in South Africa).

Day two provided an opportunity to consider the wider policy environment within which off-grid solar markets operate. An emphasis was placed on the need for favourable and well-tailored policies that can enable the scale-up and increased uptake of such energy solutions, particularly in those countries where off-grid solar systems have not yet been widely distributed.

Discussions that followed around the future of off-grid solar also pointed to the need for recognising the importance of grid electricity provision and how it too can be a clean source, if renewables such as hydro, geo-thermal, wind etc. (depending on local availability) are applied. Hybrid solutions and energy provision designed around various energy sources were highly spoken of.

Break out sessions where participants had the opportunity to hold more focused discussions.

Break out sessions where participants had the opportunity to hold more focused discussions.

There was a common recognition that off-grid solar solutions are a part of the puzzle if we are to provide a universal energy access for all by 2030, as it is aimed for within the Sustainable Development Goals. In addition to the key themes, a lot of stress was put on knowledge-sharing and developing best practices to achieve that, not only within organisations but across the board, in order to include all relevant stakeholders.

Another issue was the need to learn from failure. We have seen so many projects aiming to provide energy access (or likewise other services, such as water and sanitation) fail over the decades and yet we still see them fail today. Appropriate technology application, end-user inclusion and consultation, regular feedback collection, iterative process design and, yet again, knowledge-sharing were pointed to when thinking of ways of addressing this challenge.

The audience was highly engaged in the discussions, both in smaller breakout sessions and during the final open floor panel. It was great to see different perspectives coming together, debating both the positive impacts and the challenges of off-grid solar. It was a call-to-action that should resonate beyond the conference and the space it created.

There was an unequivocal agreement that more work is desperately needed to ensure the 1.3 billion people worldwide who have no access to modern energy services can enjoy them in the near future. Whether we are talking about research, business model adaptation, improved access to finance or better tailoring and implementation of supporting policies, it is all of equal importance and can only be meaningful if done in a holistic manner.

There was a feeling that we were all left with more questions than we had started off with, but that shouldn’t be seen as a problem – quite the opposite, actually: the more we question things, the more we understand them and the more we learn. Knowing what we don’t know is just as valuable as actually knowing.

Watch the presentations from the Social Research on Off-Grid Solar (SROGS) conference: