What is needed to realize Africa’s potential when it comes to clean energies – is it just a matter of money?A
You need more than just finance to pay for technologies to be established. It is quite clear that if countries are really to develop, they need to be more than recipients of technology transfer and finance to support that transfer. Local capabilities also need to be developed so that these technologies can be maintained and adapted to suit local needs.
Geothermal energy in Kenya is an excellent case in point. Looking back on the 40-year history of developing geothermal energy in Kenya, there has been an amazing accumulation of capabilities within the sector amongst Kenyans. Very capable and skilled staff who have worked on geothermal projects from the first exploratory drillings all the way to production. As a result, you see some excellent capacities within organisations and companies in Kenya.
This can’t always be replicated in other contexts, but I do think there are general lessons to learn. For example, you’ve got similar experiences in Kenya in the cookstove and the solar power sectors, where there has been a lot of hard work to bring different actors together, to ensure that standards are established, and to provide adequate training and a skilled workforce to install and maintain systems.
All these examples show that climate finance and technology transfer have to be the catalysts of change in order to become truly transformative.
From cookstoves to windfarms and geothermal energy plants, your work on energy in Africa encompasses a very broad range. Why?A
Energy plays an essential role in societies across the world, with many different energy resources providing a wide range of energy services, from electricity to mechanical power to heating. That makes the energy sector really diverse. For example, the oil, gas and electricity sub-sectors – featuring large, capital-intensive marvels of engineering – typically receive much of the attention in national policy considerations.
But in many developing countries, there is also an important discussion to be had around the use of biomass energy for cooking and heating, an area that SEI has worked on for decades, and most recently in Kenya and Zambia. Often biomass energy issues can only be addressed by working across multiple sectors, such as energy, forestry and land use, agriculture and even health.
At the same time, there are many similar tendencies across different sub-sectors. Incumbent actors in different sub-sectors typically wield significant influence and are often resistant to change. They are therefore an important factor to study when trying to understand how to encourage energy system transitions, whether at household, community or national level.
And in this vein, cultural norms and behavioral biases play a major role in guiding decision-making regardless of the energy sub-sector. For cooking and heating, these norms and biases are found within households and communities; whereas in centralized energy sub-sectors they are often shared among senior management in the state-owned enterprises and ministries.
Can you give an example where SEI’s work has been particularly successful in helping with the energy transition?A
Our work on county energy planning in Kenya was quite influential because it was done at a time when the counties were just gaining more autonomy. The idea was that planning for energy was to be de-centralised. But no-one really knew how! Our work was among the first efforts to look at county energy planning and was subsequently taken up by other county energy planning processes.
It might not be obvious that energy planning is part of the “energy transition”. That term tends be understood in terms of transitioning from carbon-intensive to low-carbon energy systems. But it is crucial to understand that there are other dimensions to the transition, such as moving to energy systems where there is equitable access to energy. This is also something we’ve looked at.
“The human dimension of energy doesn’t get the attention it deserves.”
What is your main take-away from this wide range of work on energy in Africa?A
I would say that there’s a huge scope for a more nuanced understanding of the socio-political and cultural dynamics of energy systems. Often times we find that there is a very techno-economic approach to the energy sector development in sub-Saharan Africa, because the decision-makers are often coming from engineering backgrounds.
That may be less true for the household cooking sector, but very much so when it comes to electricity provision, governance in the energy sector, or around energy production, and in connection to landscape changes. Energy discussions tend to be framed in terms of finance and technology, and the human dimension of energy doesn’t tend to get the attention that it deserves.