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Connections beyond the margins of the power grid: Information technology and the evolution of off-grid solar electricity in the developing world


This work explores the intersections of information technology and off-grid electricity deployment in the developing world with focus on a key instance: the emergence of pay-as-you-go (PAYG) solar household-scale energy systems. It is grounded in detailed field study by my research team in Kenya between 2013-2014 that included primary data collection across the solar supply chain from global businesses through national and local distribution and to the end-users. We supplement the information with business process and national survey data to develop a detailed view of the markets, technology systems, and individuals who interact within those frameworks. The findings are presented in this dissertation as a series of four chapters with introductory, bridging, and synthesis material between them.

The first chapter, Decentralized Energy Systems for Clean Electricity Access, presents a global view of the emerging off-grid power sector. Long-run trends in technology create “a unique moment in history” for closing the gap between global population and access to electricity, which has stubbornly held at 1-2 billion people without power since the initiation of the electric utility business model in the late 1800’s. We show the potential for widespread near-term adoption of off-grid solar, which could lead to ten times less inequality in access and also ten times lower household-level climate impacts. Decentralized power systems that replace fuel-based incumbent lighting can advance the causes of climate stabilization, economic and social freedom and human health.

Chapters two and three are focused on market and institutional dynamics present circa 2014 in for off-grid solar with a focus on the Kenya market. Chapter 2, “Off-grid Power and Connectivity”, presents our findings related to the widespread influence of information technology across the supply chain for solar and in PAYG approaches. Using digital financing and embedded payment verification technology, PAYG businesses can help overcome key barriers to adoption of off-grid energy systems. The framework provides financing (or energy service payment structures) for users of off-grid solar, and we show is also instrumental for building trust in off-grid solar technology, facilitating supply chain coordination, and creating mechanisms and incentives for after-sales service. Similar models are also being tested and launched for on-grid electricity (pre-pay energy meters) and agricultural water pumping among others. While there is a clear potential to extend the reach of critical infrastructure networks, there are also important concerns for achieving equitable and sustained access. Some are at the business network level, where telecommunications firms have a unique role as gatekeepers and enablers of mobile communication systems and (sometimes) also competing participants in the emerging PAYG market. Another is the importance of balancing privacy and the value of data-driven technology systems like PAYG. We talked with users who both recognized the value in their personal data and were concerned about widespread sharing beyond the boundary of the retail-facing firms that they interact with. Overall the work highlights how information and energy systems are co-evolving at the edge of the grid. Chapter 3, Quality Communication, delves into detail on the information channels (both incumbent and ICT-based) that link retailers with regional and global markets for solar goods. In it we uncover the linked structure of physical distribution networks and the pathway for information about product characteristics (including, critically, the quality of products). The work shows that a few key decisions about product purchasing at the wholesale level, in places like Nairobi (the capital city for Kenya) create the bulk of the choice set for retail buyers, and show how targeting those wholesale purchasers is critically important for ensuring good-quality products are available.

Chapter 4, the last in this dissertation, is titled Off-grid solar energy services enabled and evaluated through information technology and presents an analytic framework for using remote monitoring data from PAYG systems to assess the joint technological and behavioral drivers for energy access through solar home systems. Using large-scale (n ~ 1,000) data from a large PAYG business in Kenya (M-KOPA), we show that people tend to co-optimize between the quantity and reliability of service, using 55% of the energy technically possible but with only 5% system down time. Half of the users move their solar panel frequently (in response to concerns about theft, for the most part) and these users experienced 20% lower energy service quantities. The findings illustrate the implications of key trends for off-grid power: evolving system component technology architectures, opportunities for improved support to markets, and the use of background data from business and technology systems.

Overall the work reveals both opportunities and pitfalls in a combined information-energy system. With increased visibility and control of the system there are opportunities to better support the market, but there are often disincentives to share certain data for private sector actors that operate the decentralized power system and frictions at the interface of mismatched information systems. If barriers to interoperability and scale are addressed, basic human needs for energy can be met by solar at an accelerated pace through connections to emerging information technology and business networks that extend beyond the margins of the grid.

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