– Electricity can make profound changes possible to rural life. However every electrification project has a unique context, and the players involved have to be willing to participate in dialogue, negotiations and adapt to local conditions, according to Helene Ahlborg, from the Department for Energy and Environment, Chalmers.
Fewer than five per cent of households in the countryside in Tanzania are connected to the grid. Electricity is a unique carrier of energy, making it possible to carry out many kinds of work, public services and communication with the rest of the world. A lack of a modern supply of energy can be a contributing factor to persistent poverty and poor health. It is also a question of equality because it is mainly women today who spend a great deal of time and work supplying the household with energy, water and food.
– The extension of the state grid in Tanzania is very expensive, both for the country's finances and for those who want to connect to the grid. Therefore I have focused mostly on small-scale solutions and how to get them to work in the long term. In this there are parallels with Sweden where we gradually built up small networks of electricity around hydro power and then connected everything to a bigger grid," says Helene Ahlborg, a post doc at the Division of Environmental Systems Analysis.
Previous research in the area has focused mostly on the technical and economic conditions, but the research team which Helene belongs to has taken an interdisciplinary approach to capture an overriding picture. Her thesis focuses mainly on Tanzania, but the results can be applied to similar processes in other countries.
– We have done a systems analysis of where the process of electrification and the local community encounter one another. Both the energy systems and the local community are changed by that encounter, with consequences for the sustainability of the system, the everyday lives, livelihoods and relationships of people, and the local natural environment. We show where there are areas of conflict and where negative and positive feedback occurs in these complicated processes. For external players – donors, decision makers, civil servants, companies or so-called NGOs – the consequences are that you must take great care to investigate the local circumstances, but also be responsive and create arenas for dialogue with local players, negotiate and learn during the process, if it is to succeed.
Helene's team has developed theoretical tools to understand, evaluate or prepare to deliver an electrification project. The framework can be used in future research or as a support for decision-making when electrifying rural areas in different countries, not just in East Africa. Because, although every project is unique it consists of the same parts.
– Insights from Tanzania are relevant in many other contexts and indicate the importance of understanding investments in infrastructure as politically loaded processes, where questions of power, division of resources and dominant perceptions about what it development is are realised. The trend for decentralised energy production means, to some extent, a change of the roles of the established players and the need to, once again, open up for discussion about what development is desirable and possible."
After publishing her thesis in May 2015, Helene would like to continue carrying out research in the same area, and for example, investigate what it means for the local economy when rural areas are electrified with the help of local sources of energy, and how different forms of governance affect the long-term sustainability of the energy system.