Broadcast: Events

Private sector-led solar mini-grids in sub-Saharan Africa and how they are held back by path dependencies in energy

Thursday 12 December 13:00 until 14:00
Silverstone 317
Part of the series: Energy & Climate Seminar Series


In this seminar, Kirsten Ulsrud presents key factors that hold back the opportunities for people in sub-Saharan Africa to utilize decentralized solar power to a larger extent than what has been possible so far. Such factors differ significantly between the two main groups of decentralized off-grid solar power-based delivery models: mini-grids and other community level models on the one hand; and individual user or household level delivery models on the other. The major part of the seminar provides research findings on private sector-led mini-grids, which have been met with high expectations, but gradually also some resignation, although mini-grid developers have made significant progress on technological, organizational and economic challenges. The main research presented is a comprehensive case study from Senegal that shows issues relevant for many countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The case study is combined with examples from Kenya, Tanzania and Nigeria that show its relevance in different country contexts. The research, carried out through the Solar xChange project at the University of Oslo, has a holistic, mainly qualitative approach to socio-technical change, studying the local socio-technical interactions in combination with the wider context of energy system dynamics and emerging transitions. The findings show significant frictions between private-sector led solar hybrid mini-grids and mainstream energy sector policies, regulations and politics, much more than for other decentralized, off-grid solar delivery models. Different kinds of “path dependencies” create such frictions – some of which are related to massive, seemingly unchangeable global power relations. The presentation ends with brief updates on the ongoing use of decentralized solar photovoltaics in the “front-runner” country Kenya and some points for discussion, including what researchers can do to address current difficult issues and inspire institutional innovation in the field of decentralized electricity provision. The discussion relates to Ockwell and colleagues’ Special Issue on “The uptake and diffusion of solar power for energy access in developing countries” (Energy Research and Social Science, vol. 42).


Kirsten Ulsrud has a PhD in human geography from the University of Oslo, where she has recently finished a post doc position. Her specialization is socio-technical change and system building in the field of sustainable access to energy, with a focus on small-scale, decentralized solar power in countries where large numbers of people have poor or no access to electricity. Kirsten’s research analyzes experiences and lessons learned on the implementation, sustenance and acceleration of different kinds of solar electricity models in different geographical, social, and political contexts, and scrutinizes how their functioning is affected by a diversity of actors, interests and societal structures at different geographical levels. Kirsten also investigates the role of gender in access to and benefits from electricity and carries out solution-oriented research for more equitable, just and affordable access, better ways of achieving operational and economic sustainability, and strategies for institutionalization of decentralized solar power. Other research interests concern action research and deliberate transfer and exchange of knowledge between ongoing processes of socio-technical system innovation in different societies. She has played central roles in three research projects at the University of Oslo, together with practitioners and academics from India, Kenya, Sweden and Norway. Kirsten combines research and practice in her small organization Solar Exchange and is a part time lecturer at the University of Dalarna in Sweden and the University of Oslo in Norway.

By: Francisco Dominguez
Last updated: Wednesday, 27 November 2019