Changing energy geographies: The political effects of a small-scale electrification project
Journal article, 2018
This article contributes theoretically and empirically to our understanding about how a transition to ‘modern and sustainable energy for all’ may reconfigure the life of citizens who live ‘outside the grid’ in rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa. My inquiry is inspired by the question posed by James Ferguson and Tania Murray Li: what do development schemes do? I analyse a renewable energy pilot project in Tanzania that was implemented by an NGO, which eventually failed to continue its service delivery but still produced important effects. Conceptually, I build on and extend previous arguments about how development projects produce depoliticizing effects, have ambiguous effects, and reproduce unequal relations of power. Building on feminist and sociotechnical relational approaches to power, I identify when and where in the encounter between energy project and local community that these, and other, effects emerge. Case study data was collected by qualitative methodology, and consists of project documentation, observation, and interviews with actors involved. The study shows how particular material, social, emotional, and economic effects emerged from the encounter between the project and local society. Feedback between technical problems, financial difficulties, and social tensions created a downward spiral resulting in system failure. It had negative effects on the credibility of actors and on trust relations. I argue that asking what decentralized electrification schemes actually ‘do’ can provide insight relevant to energy geography, as the focus on effects reveals the sociotechnical and political relations through which electricity becomes possible and how it may reconfigure local places. The case study shows why and how a small-scale, renewable energy project only temporarily repositioned actors and places, produced ambiguous effects, and maintained unequal power relations.