Energy literacy for all? Cracking the very hard 'soft side' of energy development

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22 September 2014

Increasing energy access and transitioning from dirty to clean energy will take capacity building – but current capacity building efforts need a makeover to be effective.

Sumba, Indonesia: A local man operates a new diesel-rice-husk-powered electricity generator. It currently serves 70 households and could serve more.  The government pays for it, contractors build it and the community runs it (Photo: Sarah Best/IIED)

"We need to build capacity." That's one of three stock responses you get to the question of how to deliver energy access for all and leapfrog from dirty to clean energy in developing countries. The others being 'policy' and 'finance' – with 'more political will' as a universal basecoat. 

But in this holy trio, are we taking capacity-building issues seriously enough? My sense is that even champions of energy access feel rather shy to shout about it at times. It sounds woolly and anodyne; typical development blah blah. 

Ministers want to talk about innovative financial mechanisms or wonder technologies and pro-poor business models. Capacity building? Booorrrring.

But the thing is, without awareness, knowledge and skills, the most glorious policy goal or genius financial wizardry will hit the buffers. This is not just about energy ministry staff. It includes consumers, civil society organisations, local regulators and planners, social investors, project designers, big business, small business, banks, agricultural extension workers, doctors, county administrators, farmers' co-ops, housing associations, you name it.

Are we energy literate? Do we need to be?

I recently visited Sumba in eastern Indonesia, where I was with the Dutch NGO HIVOS, learning about their initiative to get 100 per cent renewable energy for the half a million or so people who live there by 2025. 

Sumba Iconic Island is a pretty bold idea: we're talking about 10-15 years to get from about 25 per cent to 100 per cent electrification, using clean technology on a poor and remote island that has been long ignored by government, the private sector and donors. The core of the initiative is a multi-stakeholder process and roadmap – backed by the Ministry of Energy  plus a few demonstration projects to build momentum.

The real innovation of Sumba is the way it brings together disconnected actors to work together toward a common goal, from grassroots NGOs to the Ministry of Energy and state utility. The capacity issue came up repeatedly:

  • A solar water pumping project for irrigating vegetables took two to three years from first pitching the idea to the community to the system being up and running. That's just one installation serving 60 odd farmers  and the question of how to fund maintenance still isn't solved. The local NGO, Yayasan Sumba Sejahtera (YSS), said its biggest challenge was building community awareness and support for the project, as well as farmers' horticulture skills. In poor and remote areas where there are few incentives for the private sector, training local people to manage and maintain their own energy supply is often the only option
     
  • At the policy level, it seemed that the multi-stakeholder process was working quite well, with key stakeholders backing the energy targets and agreeing on an action plan in record time. But HIVOS colleagues noted that people in that process have very different abilities and world views. For instance, the type of "bottom-up" energy planning proposed by HIVOS is core to NGO DNA  but anathema to the state-run utility on Sumba and some international funders. The national and provincial authorities are pro-active, but district officials much less so. And civil society in Sumba is fairly weak still, with only a couple of NGOs skilled enough to do the technical work, take part in stakeholder meetings or spread the message locally. 

I am sure many energy access practitioners will be able to relate to these stories.

Are we doing the right things with the right people?

It's not that there's nothing happening on the capacity building side. Far from it: there are endless initiatives or institutes – including IIED – involved in information-sharing, connecting and training people around energy. The Low Emissions Development Strategy Global Partnership (LEDSGP), the Green Growth Institute (GGI), the Climate Change Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) and the Sustainable Energy for All Practitioner Network are just a few organisations in this space. 

But are we doing the right things and with the right people? Do we know what works?

A recent report from Norway's Auditor-General to the parliament on Norway's clean energy aid spending in countries such as Brazil, Tanzania and Nepal should make us pause for thought. The audit concludes that Norway's development assistance has "to a small extent" (ouch) contributed to the increase of renewable energy and energy access for the poorest.

One of the problems the report mentions is that capacity-building measures for ministries, regulators and utilities designed to improve the 'enabling environment' for private sector investment just aren't delivering expected results. Support isn't fit-for-purpose and is nullified by frequent staff changes, low skills and lack of buy-in among recipient institutions. Images come to mind of earnest training sessions with officials who lack the resources, power or job stability to do anything much with their new knowledge when back at their desks.

The way forward

I would like to hear from development wise owls on this, but here are some initial thoughts and queries.  

  1. Think beyond engineering graduates. Many off-grid systems will need locals to run them. Two giants in the energy access field are Barefoot College (India) and Grameen Shakhti (Bangladesh) that have trained scores of uneducated women in how to install and repair solar home systems. That's a big achievement for male-dominated sector seeped in techno-babble. How have they done it? Where might we need more of that?
  2. Cultivate leadership, support pioneers. Capacity building is not just about teaching people to tell their volts from their watts, but providing dedicated support to the pioneers and change-makers; the visionaries and their allies – regulators, entrepreneurs, local planners, activists  who need coaching, incubating and spaces to work with others over a concerted period of time. This is at the heart of "social innovation labs" that have sprung up in recent years. The Rocky Mountain Institute's E-lab in the US is a good example from the electricity sector. Are donors and foundations ready to invest in these approaches in developing countries, too?  
  3. Opportunity of the developmental state. International companies argue that developmental state approaches (where the state has more power to control the economy) in countries such as Ethiopia discourage private investment in energy. But if that leads to public investing in energy research centres and training institutions, it's an opportunity, too.  
  4. Audit what's happening now. Evaluate what's working and what isn't – particularly around the training for policymakers and officials, which is where many donors invest. The LEDSGP recently surveyed its members to understand how learning is being applied.
  5. Ditch training when it doesn't work. The solution to a knowledge gap is not always education. This is what the cookstove community has learnt over decades, where significant efforts have gone into consumer education around the damaging health effects of inefficient stoves. But in the end, it requires a whole bunch of factors (PDF) to persuade people to switch to cleaner cooking technologies – such as price, aesthetics and food taste.  

Finally, at IIED we've been toying with term 'energy literacy'. Some people I speak to love it. "It's the word I've been looking for," one advocate from Costa Rica told me. Others are sceptical.

What do you think? Is 'energy literacy' simply more development jargon or is it an opportunity to recast capacity building as attractive, radical and something everyone wants a piece of?

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