Structure of the project

Illustration 1. Structure of the project / SEI

Small-scale, decentralized and modular technologies can play key roles for providing basic human services such as energy, sanitation and fresh water, especially in contexts without access to physical infrastructure. But deployment of these “gridless” technologies is currently limited by financing, regulations, standards and lack of appropriate business models.

In both the electricity and wastewater treatment sectors, small-scale, decentralized and modular technologies are becoming increasingly attractive as alternatives to traditional large-scale centralized systems.

This development is in many ways quite beneficial, as it can open up new opportunities for provision of basic services, especially to communities where connection to central power grids or wastewater treatment systems are either not available or prohibitively expensive. This includes island communities, rural regions in global South and humanitarian aid settlements, but could also apply to informal settlements in rapidly urbanizing regions.

Development and deployment of gridless technologies come with a set of challenges that in many ways are different to those seen in systems based on large physical grid infrastructures. The objective of the Gridless Initiative is to gain an increased understanding of gridless technologies as a sociotechnical phenomenon, so as to understand how they can be developed and deployed in a way that maximizes their potential when it comes to acceleration of sustainability transitions.


SEI Initiative on Gridless Solutions co-funds SEI’s work in the sWASH&grow project which focuses on developing tools to enable innovators and aid organizations bring more circular, inclusive and sustainable innovations to those in need. Learn more about the project.

WP2: Marine, multifunctional, mobile and modular (M4) solutions

New spaces and new solutions are needed to manage competition for land and resources resulting from population and economic growth. Marine areas are receiving increasing attention from researchers and policymakers thanks to the opportunities they provide for service and goods supply.

Oceans and seas are receiving increased attention as potential solutions to land planning conflicts. Wind energy production provides a clear example of such an approach: offshore wind installations capacity almost tripled in the last 10 years and surpassed onshore ones (Wind Europe 2022 ). The European Commission (2021) has identified oceans, seas and coasts as ideal venues to contribute to the objectives of the European Green Deal. In particular, activities such as the development of offshore renewable energy, including floating wind, thermal, wave and tidal energy, the decommissioning of existing oil and gas platforms, algae and seaweed production in aquacultures, and innovation for cell-based seafood are mentioned as core contributions that ocean and sea spaces can provide to reaching ambitious goals.

With businesses and various other organizations shifting their focus from land to the sea, the goal of our work aims to investigate how these emerging opportunities are being seized and how the main challenges are addressed. In particular, we focus on applications aiming to co-locate many of these processes in the same spaces for more optimal marine spatial planning and increased economic attractiveness.

Three aspects are expected to characterize the new applications: multifunctionality, with multiple activities sharing the same spaces and the same infrastructure or location (e.g. renewable energy production with aquaculture and/or storage); mobility, the resistance of the (floating) platforms to lateral forces generated by wind and waves and the possibility be relocated at a low cost; and modularity, the potential of these platforms to be aggregated as individual components into a larger system. Common across all these aspects is the concept that these solutions will all be placed in marine spaces, hence the term we define for them is M4s:  Marine, Multifunctional, Mobile, and Modular solutions.

We scan existing research to identify geographical and co-location patterns: where are multi-use marine projects located? Which technologies are considered? Are the solutions deployed mobile and/or modular? Are the platforms floating or fixed? What are the technologies that are most often combined? What are the benefits and drawback with different solutions? In this way, we identify research trends and point out necessary future directions in the field of M4s. The next step to take is to gather information beyond academic publications by reviewing grey literature and online resources, as well as discussing our findings with key stakeholders that are active in this field.

WP3: Water-energy hybrid systems in island settings

Pressures on grid-based infrastructures have been increasing significantly in the near future in Small Island Development States (SIDS) due to climate change and socio-economic challenges. Most smaller islands, especially the ones near the tropics, have been consistently exposed to extreme storms and have limited hydrological reserves. Effects of extreme hydroclimatic events such as flooding due to storm surges or damage from intense wind forces are expected to become exacerbated as global temperatures increase. Sea level rise will cause saltwater intrusion, reducing even further the amount of groundwater storage. A disruption of a single point of the network can propagate to areas not directly impacted by a hazard. Consequently, effects from hydroclimatic extremes lead to an increase in the frequency of electric power and water shortages with catastrophic cascading impacts on economies and societies. But islands present immense harvesting potential for solar and wind power, as well as water desalination, that can be better explored to increase systemic resilience.

Considering these increasing pressures on infrastructures, how and where to provide an optimal mix of water and energy solutions that increase the resilience of electric power and water systems? Which solutions are the most appropriate for island settings considering their unique environmental characteristics?

Gridless Work Package 3 is developing an approach to address these research questions through a combination of cutting-edge tools that take into consideration the network configuration of the entire island to identify points of intervention and zoom in into the local level to design optimal solutions delivering energy and water to vulnerable areas.

By applying graph theory science and opensource critical infrastructure datasets, a novel network-based model is implemented to simulate the flow of water and energy systems in an entire island and quantify resilience metrics that indicate criticality, vulnerability, and redundancy properties. Those metrics reflect how cascading failures propagate in the network and the interactions between supplies and demands. Demand and supply are allocated to network nodes according to demographics and existing topological infrastructure features. After identifying a hotspot for improvement, state-of-the-art software and design methods are then locally applied to recommend a solution as a complex hybrid water-energy system composed by solar, wind, batteries, desalination, and other resources. Finally, the recommended solutions are included in the network model to quantify the resilience enhancement of the systems.

The approach to improve resilience will be implemented in Cuba, building upon an existing cooperation with SEI. The island has been subject to long and frequent summertime power and water outages. Recently, hurricane Ian caused devastating impacts on the infrastructure in the island. Even though the storm has only hit the western coast of Cuba, the entire remaining of the island suffered from shortages of energy due to cascading effects on the network.

WP4: Political economy of solar mini-grids

Mini grids can play a vital role providing electricity in parts of rural sub-Saharan Africa not reached with grid electricity in the medium to long term. However, unlike grid electricity, minigrids face unique sociotechnical challenges that are often exacerbated by the weak political economy within which they operate. Work package four explores how political economy factors like politics, power and coalitions between national and international actors can affect the minigrid development in terms of innovation capacity and quality and cost of services to the electricity users. During phase one of the Gridless Initiative, we investigated how political economy factors can influence the technology innovation system of minigrid development in Kenya.

Our analysis showed that political influence and vested interests negatively influence minigrid site selection, resulting in unnecessary delays which inflate capital investment and can disrupt the system to the detriment of investors, developers and most of all, electricity users.

We also found that there is a high level of uncertainty in terms of what happens when the grid arrives, and that policy and regulatory processes in Kenya have not kept pace with minigrid development on the ground, largely due to the political influence and vested interests of public and private sector actors.

Nonetheless, technological innovations such as the emerging lithium and capacitor battery technologies, internet of things enabling remote management and big data for effective system sizing and planning suggest that the sector has significant growth potential. We also found that several minigrid developers are already using these innovations to enhance their service offerings to different types of users.

During phase two of the Initiative, we aim to build on and deepen our initial analysis examining how the political economy factors identified play out at the local level, and their implications for how minigrids are developed, including the impact on business model innovation and service delivery. Given the diversity of approaches to minigrid development in Kenya, the research will look at three different contexts of minigrid development: (i) where a minigrid co-exists alongside the grid;  (ii) where the minigrid is the only source of electricity and the grid is unlikely to be extended, and (iii) where the minigrid is currently operating, but the grid is expected to reach in the coming years. We will use a service design approach to map and visualise the various strategies used by the minigrid developers and other key actors to manage policy and regulatory uncertainty in each case, including similarities and differences, and the effect on service innovation and service delivery to energy users.

For the analysis, we will draw on the literature on Business Model Innovation and Service Innovation, to understand how multiple technologies and services can be connected in ways that create value, and how these new connections can disrupt incumbent business models. The study will contribute new knowledge about how political and economic factors at the national level have direct and indirect impacts at the sites of minigrid development, and how different types of minigrid developers navigate policy and regulatory uncertainty.  The findings will be of use to minigrid sector actors seeking to enhance the resilience of their business models, as well as to Kenyan energy planning authorities currently grappling with how to legislate for a rapid expansion of renewable energy that will require the involvement of various, often competing actors, both grid and off grid, public and private.

WP5: Political economy of urban water utilities

Cities have now crossed the threshold of hosting over half of the world population. With 4.4 billion urban populations, developing countries in Africa and Asian are experiencing rapid urban population growth, while developed countries such as Europe, North America and South America are seeing their growth rate decline. By 2050, Africa and Asia will have an additional 2 billion urban population in their current and emerging cities. This presents series of challenges for the cities to maintain vital infrastructure and services, address urban developmental needs such as poverty and health disparity, while having to facilitate economic growth and rural-urban migration.

Among the challenges that comes with rapid urbanisation, urban water security remains a prevalent issue. Not only does cities need to expand and maintain its water infrastructure network and services, it also needs to supply water to the growing population.

Despite efforts and progress, over 660 million people continues to lack access to adequately treated water sources. In cities, low-income households and informal settlements are disproportionately facing water insecurity against the backdrop of increasing climate risks and environmental degradations.

To ensure universal access to safe and affordable drinking water for all, urban planning for a sustainable access to safe, affordable, reliable drinking water – as opposed to improved drinking water sources – is needed.

Work Package 5 of the Gridless Initative is exploring how gridless water solutions can help deliver equitable supply of safe and reliable water in growing cities. Work Package 5 is focusing on cities in Bangalore, India and Nairobi, Kenya to understand the interconnected problems of water supply, quality, reliability, and price, against the needs of local communities and systemic barriers that undermines scalable water solutions. Work Package 5 will inform water researchers and urban planners on the challenge of engaging with the policy- and need-driven approach with local authorities and communities and identify the pathway to co-develop water solutions that equitably deliverable water to the vulnerable urban population.