Ensuring affordability, reliability and sustainability for Africa's electricity network

Professor Cameron Hepburn

A newly funded Global Challenges Research Fund project seeks to overcome energy poverty in rural Africa, working alongside stakeholders, investors and local householders to develop an affordable, reliable and sustainable electricity network.

An international research team led by Dr Aoife Brophy Haney from SSEE and Saïd Business School has been awarded funding from the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) to carry out a project titled 'Innovation and Scale: Enhanced energy access and local market development in sub-Saharan Africa'. The project team includes Dr Susann Stritzke, Dr Sarah McGill and Angelika Kaiser from SSEE, as well as Professor Amos Madhopla and a team from the University of Cape Town and Philipp Trotter from the University of Bath.

The Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) is a £1.5 billion fund announced by the UK Government in late 2015 to support cutting-edge research that addresses the challenges faced by developing countries. GCRF forms part of the UK's Official Development Assistance (ODA) commitment, which is monitored by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The interdisciplinary research project aims to design integrated, actionable and transferable development strategies for the local renewable energy sector in sub-Saharan Africa. The research pursues three mutually reinforcing areas of inquiry: suitable business models for a competitive local renewable electrification industry; optimal institutional arrangements to facilitate the development of the industry; and enabling community involvement, especially in rural areas. Two contrasting national case studies, Uganda and Zambia, form the basis of the project.

Sub-Saharan Africa is the most energy-deprived region in the world, with more than two-thirds of the population lacking access to electricity. Energy poverty is especially acute in rural areas, while high prices, unreliable supply, and slow adoption of renewable sources are persistent problems even for those with access to electricity. Thus none of the three criteria for equal energy access &emdash; affordability, reliability and sustainability &emdash; as defined by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is yet close to being fulfilled. Energy poverty has impaired sub-Saharan Africa's economic development for decades, yet these challenges will only worsen as the continent's rural population growth outpaces capacity growth.

Given the sheer size of the African continent and low rates of urbanisation, large-scale electrical grids are both impractical and prohibitively expensive. Meanwhile, rapidly falling system costs have made renewable off-grid solutions the cheapest and cleanest option in many remote areas. To date, however, three main issues have prevented sustainable electrification: difficulties in attracting international investment to small-scale renewables; inconsistent and often opaque regulatory and institutional frameworks; and a failure to include local communities, i.e. customers, in planning.

The project aims to understand how these three broad factors are interrelated, and is deeply committed to delivering impact beyond academia. Key stakeholder groups from government, business, and civil society will be involved throughout all stages of the project. Integral to the success of the project will be translating the research findings into actionable development plans, including new renewable energy business models, financing and revenue schemes, and policy recommendations.