London Workshop

‘Realising the Transition’: Workshop highlights, Tuesday 3rd February, 2015

The ‘Rising Powers, Clean Energy and the Low Carbon Transition in Southern Africa’ team held a one day international workshop titled ‘Realising the Transition: Addressing the challenges of low carbon energy and development in Africa’ in London on 3rd February, 2015. The workshop was held at The Royal Society in London and consisted of a series of presentations, shorter interventions and discussion sessions.

This one-day workshop examined how and with what consequences pathways to low carbon development are emerging and being contested in sub-Saharan Africa. With issues of access to clean energy services, broader questions of development, and the challenges of responding to climate change, new geopolitical alliances and forms of infrastructure investment are being established as a means through which to foster energy development across the region. These drivers are leading to the emergence of multiple energy transitions, from those focused on the expansion of fossil fuel economies to those which have sought to foster the growth of low-carbon energy systems.

Realising the Transition explored ways in which these transitions are unfolding in different African contexts and their implications for development and environmental goals. The workshop presented the findings from the ESRC funded project, The Rising Powers, Clean Development and the Low Carbon Transition in Sub-Saharan Africa project led by the Universities of Durham and Sussex. It also included presentations and papers from international research experts working in the field. The workshop provided a space for fostering dialogue between the research, practice and policy communities concerned with the issues of low carbon energy and development in Africa and offer insights on the new approaches required to realise future transitions.

With a focus on but not limited to ‘Rising Power’ countries (China, India, Brazil) the workshop explored various sites of energy development, and asked: how is this development being carried out? what role are different public, private and international agencies playing? who stands to benefit from this development and how? what examples of transformation already exist and what lessons might be draw from these with regards to developments elsewhere? Case studies presented at the workshop included: the challenges of low carbon energy and development in Africa; the development of grid-connected wind and solar PV in South Africa; off-grid solar in Kenya; high-carbon development in Mozambique; hydro-electricity in Uganda; China’s role in hydropower development in Africa and Asia; the development of the Chinese renewable energy market and its interaction with global dynamics within Africa; and ethanol in Brazil.

A series of briefings to accompany the presentations were prepared in advance of the workshop in order to fuel and inform discussions. Of note is that the workshop uncovered differing views over how renewable energy should be defined. For instance, should definitions of renewable energy extend to hydro-electricity or biofuels? Furthermore research gaps were identified within academia and the policy arena, for instance with regards to mini-grids and gender in energy policy.

On Political Economy

Throughout the day, critical questions of political economy in relation to energy development in Africa were posed. The most poignant of these included: ‘how is technology shaping politics?’ ‘how has politics shaped technology choice?’ ‘who are the technologies serving?’ and ‘who frames the problem with regards to energy policy?’ Recurrent themes included the role of the state in setting relevant policy frameworks for energy, and how differing levels of bargaining power will affect the state’s ability to negotiate with investors and foreign companies and set the terms of involvement in energy development and related resource extraction at the national level. Caution was also raised over researchers focussing solely on elite coalitions at the state level which can mean that other more local level dynamics can be overlooked. The importance of looking at both agency and structure were highlighted with regards to understanding how a transition might take place. Questions of democratic legitimacy, at the national and international levels were also raised question.

There were also discussions over different models of electricity governance that currently exist, for instance a monopoly utility as compared to a liberalised electricity sector, and how this may interact with attempts to introduce renewable energy. Such considerations also touched on the role of political and financial risk in energy projects and how the terms of these risks, and their subsequent impact on the costs of capital, are defined by investors. The workshop also considered the ability of the market to facilitate and attract renewable energy investment without a supporting regulatory environment from government. The significant role that China has had in solar PV markets both in Africa and globally was also discussed and how the recent EU and US anti-dumping legislation on Chinese manufactured panels may impact this success going forward.

On Perceptions of Electricity

A number of speakers highlighted the social, economic and cultural significance of electricity in various different parts of the world including the competing narratives of what it means to be electrified, and the contrasts between a grid connection and decentralised sources of renewable energy. The seminar explored how energy access is often focussed on grid connected electricity rather than other forms of provision. For example in some low and middle income countries, having a solar home system may later disadvantage low income households from qualifying for a connection to the electric grid. The relationship between electricity, patronage and corruption in infrastructure was also highlighted and linked to evidence that elected officials in some parts of the world stand to gain more from potential voters by from providing connections to the electricity grid than they would an off grid solar system. Technical issues involved with utility-scale renewable energy, including grid connections were also discussed.

On Energy Access

Affordability and sustainability are fundamental to questions of energy access. With this in mind, speakers considered what energy access means and who sets the terms, and asked how can one ensure that poorer groups are not excluded from transformations (e.g ‘green grabbing’). Globally 1.3 billion people don’t have access to energy and 2/3 of people in SSA lack access to modern energy services. With this in mind, the aim of the UN Sustainable Energy for All initiative which aims to achieve universal access by 2030 implies that an unprecedented transformation is needed. It was felt that in many parts of the world, people aspire more to grid connected electricity than to off grid projects.

One speaker highlighted the inadequacy of the academic literature on energy access in light of its focus on technology and finance. For this reason greater focus is needed on cultural, socio-political and political economy questions. There are multiple configurations of energy services involving different forms of access, behaviour and technologies. Numerous factors can close down pathways to more sustainable energy pathways and result in lock-in to inferior technologies. These include social expectations, cultural norms and historical contingency . Questions were also raised in relation to innovation and technology transfer, skills, knowhow, knowledge and expertise. For instance, ‘how does knowhow travel and get dispersed’?

On Current and Potential Roles for the UK

Finally, the workshop discussed current and potential roles for the UK with regards to facilitating catalytic finance for Africa that will address climate change and poverty at the same time. This includes by channelling finance via the International Climate Fund and other multilateral facilities. Questions from the floor were raised as to how UK government departments and business can add value by leveraging private sector investment in either large scale grid connected power or off-grid renewable energy DfID putting money into some of the multilateral facilities. As the UK is plugged into northern circuits of capital, can and does the UK play a role as a knowledge broker between Rising Powers such as China and African countries, as for instance has happened in the health sector.