Towards a conceptualization of power and micro-level politics in energy transitions
Other conference contribution, 2015

In rich as well as in poor countries, the energy sectors are in transition from strongly centralised governance and production systems to increasing diversity in governance arrangements and modes of production. In Tanzania, barely 7% of the rural inhabitants have access to electricity services from the national grid. In many rural communities, local generation and micro-grid distribution based on renewable energy sources is being introduced for the first time, complementing the existing use of kerosene, candles, batteries and small diesel generators. This paper explores decentralized rural electrification (RE) processes in Tanzania from a socio-technical system perspective. The aim is to: (1) develop conceptual tools for studying relations of power in energy transitions, and (2) to use these to explain the interplay between power relations and sociotechnical change in a case of decentralized rural electrification in Tanzania. Previous research shows that electrification processes primarily benefit the better-off minority and, thus, serve to reproduce existing social hierarchies. Here, RE processes are conceptualized as fundamentally political processes in which struggles for control and access over various resources are taking place. They are also processes where the productive and creative abilities of humans can be enhanced and people can work together for mutual benefit. In order to make analytical sense of empirical observations in a case study in Tanzania, I undertake an explorative analysis of the multiple workings of power in RE processes. Starting from a review of innovation system literature, I conclude that existing conceptual frameworks do not allow me to fully capture the political dimensions of RE, which leads to the argument that the theoretical conceptualizations of (and not just the empirical attention to) political dimensions of energy transitions are still at an early stage. Engagements with the rich philosophical debate on human power can assist us in improving the clarity and precision of analysis and use of concepts. The paper takes a few tentative steps in that direction by integrating and developing theories on human power in relation to electrification and applying these to a case of small-scale hydropower development. The case study is based on data collected in Tanzania in 2012 and 2013, during a period of around three months. The material includes a total of 104 interviews with actors in the geographical area of the hydropower plant, participant observation and document analysis. The findings indicate that income gaps have grown as a consequence of larger economic benefits for the connected households. There is a sense of exclusion among villagers who cannot afford to connect to the grid. However, the introduction of electricity also has destabilized existing social relations and created a moment of expanding space for individual and collective agency in tension with existing societal structures, manifesting in women and men improving their social positions and women breaking traditional gender roles. Arguably, the tensions between agency and structure, between human capacity and system behaviours beyond the control of individual actors make electrification processes highly interesting and important objects of study. They can provide insights into the social and material base of political economies, and relationships between human and non-human system elements in processes of co-evolution between system and context. The use of socio-technical approaches in the Tanzanian context, and the engagement with theories of human power, open up to new areas of research and theoretical development in the field of energy transitions.

rural electrification

Socio-technical systems

human power

energy transitions



Helene Ahlborg

Chalmers, Energy and Environment, Environmental Systems Analysis

International Sustainability Transitions Conference, 25.28 August 2015, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK

Driving Forces

Sustainable development

Areas of Advance


Subject Categories

Other Social Sciences not elsewhere specified

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