Walking along the lines of power. A systems approach to understanding co-emergence of society, technology and nature in processes of rural electrification
Doctoral thesis, 2015
Many African governments, international and local organizations involved in development policy and practice consider rural electrification (RE) to be a priority. In the absence of electric grid infrastructure, rural populations rely on, for example, diesel generators, batteries and solar panels for their electricity supply and on kerosene, wood and charcoal for lighting and heating purposes. Increasingly, renewable energy technologies in small-scale decentralized systems are promoted as a complement or an alternative to the extension of national grids. Large-scale and small-scale RE processes differ in many respects. However, both are troubled by the gap between expected and actual outcomes. This thesis scrutinizes the assumption that ‘electricity brings development’. It shows the importance of asking questions related to the encounter between local societies and externally introduced technology in order to understand how and why RE processes in general, and decentralized RE in particular, unfold in particular ways – with short and long-term consequences for life in rural areas.
In this thesis, I bring together socio-technical approaches, philosophical debates on human power and conceptualizations of scale. This allows me to explore RE processes and the points of intersection between society, technology and nature that are important for shaping the outcomes for different actors, and producing certain kinds of development. Together, these perspectives help us see how electrification processes are inherently political with on-the-ground dynamics embedded in and influencing more long-term development processes at higher societal levels.
The thesis presents a synthesis of four empirical studies and combines broad and general analyses – of Tanzania’s and Mozambique’s energy sectors and RE prospects, and the role of democracy and institutional quality for public electricity provision in African countries – with two case studies of decentralized generation and micro-grid distribution in Tanzania. A fifth paper explores dimensions of scale, which are central to the theoretical and methodological approach of the thesis. The theoretical contribution is an analytical framework for studying processes of system formation in decentralized RE. It can guide further research and assist interdisciplinary communication around the complex challenges involved in RE processes. Furthermore, the thesis develops a conceptualization of the multiple workings of human power in electrification processes, which helps us understand how social inequality is maintained and contested. The conclusion is that even small-scale systems of local generation and distribution can be powerful enough to redirect processes of social and economic change and bring accompanying shifts in social identities, people’s use of and understanding of spaces, and the distribution of material resources.
The thesis contributes to existing knowledge by developing conceptual tools for understanding the ‘messy’ human aspects of socio-technical change in relation to technical and ecological elements and processes. For the actors involved in RE processes, the thesis helps illustrate why conflicts of interest can be expected to emerge and where points of friction can occur. These are the points that require the continuous attention of actors involved in order to create positive feedbacks and avoid negative spirals. One of the conclusions is that actors involved in RE processes may contribute to the sustainable functioning of energy systems and positive outcomes by creating processes for dialogue, negotiation and learning.