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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Socio-Technical Innovation for a Low Carbon Energy Future

  • Author(s): Avila, Nkiruka Ifunanya
  • Advisor(s): Kammen, Daniel M
  • et al.

This dissertation develops a set of analytical tools and conceptual frameworks to explore the socio-technical implications of transitioning to a low carbon energy future. The chapters here investigate the energy challenges in Sub-Saharan Africa and analyze power expansion pathways in Nigeria and Kenya, outline the development of a novel electricity modeling tool, and conceptualize an energy sovereignty framework to enable people-centered energy planning approaches.

Chapter 2 presents an overview of Africa’s energy systems and the role renewable energy can play in supporting sustainable development in Africa, with a main focus on the challenges in Sub-Saharan Africa. I synthesize the most prominent papers in the past five years. I review the literature concerning the scale of generation expansion needed to achieve universal access in the region, the challenges of power sector finance, and the need for people-centered planning paradigms. Through an extensive literature review, I assess the capacity expansion needs of the region and highlight the policy lessons that enable private power sector investment such as transparent regulatory and procurement policies. I also present a critique of the socio-political implications of increased foreign investment in the region’s power sector. Finally, I present several studies that explore the need for people-centered planning approaches in order to achieve more equitable energy systems for all. I argue that renewable energy presents opportunities to achieve power systems expansion in an economically, environmentally and socially sustainable manner. To do this, Sub-Saharan Africa must adapt its planning strategies to holistically address the technical, economic and socio-political challenges it faces.

Chapter 3 takes a deep-dive from an overview of Sub-Saharan Africa to a focus on Nigeria. I develop a first-order capacity expansion model to analyze power expansion scenarios in Nigeria. Nigeria serves as a case of countries with significant electricity demand growth that is constrained by under-developed grid infrastructure. I illustrate how the dependence on natural gas for generation has stifled the nation’s power supply, assess the role of renewable energy in meeting the nation’s electricity demand growth, and compare the cost of its current power generation expansion pathways to cost-optimized pathways. Using the capacity expansion model, I find that Nigeria’s current energy policy, known as Vision 30:30:30, perpetuates this heavy reliance on natural gas and significantly underestimates the role of solar energy in the future electricity mix. I also identify and assess lower cost alternative pathways which do not require any coal and nuclear generation expansion unlike the Vision 30:30:30 pathway. The results show that Nigeria will have to install at least an additional 38 GW by 2030 to keep up with grid-based demand growth alone - about eight times the current operational capacity. This chapter reveals Nigeria’s need for an energy policy reform that reduces its dependency on natural gas, eschews coal and nuclear expansion, and harnesses its abundant solar potential using centralized and distributed renewable energy technologies.

Chapter 4 outlines my development of a novel open-access electricity modeling tool known as PROGRESS (Programmable Resource Optimization for Growth in Renewable Energy and Sustainable Systems). PROGRESS enables generation expansion modeling for countries with low availability and access to power systems data. The design of sustainable electricity systems needed to fuel development in regions with low electrification rates (such as Sub-Saharan Africa) requires context-specific power system modeling. Modeling data requirements for these regions, however, can be challenging for researchers and other stakeholders to access. This chapter presents a proof-of-concept description to show how PROGRESS works and then presents preliminary results for generation capacity expansion using the case of Kenya.

Chapter 5 presents what is, for me, the most critical aspect of this dissertation. I explore how transitioning to low carbon energy systems and achieving universal electricity access will require not only an extensive redesign of the existing energy infrastructure but also a rethinking of energy planning approaches. I argue that innovation in decentralized and distributed energy technology transforms people from mere consumers to prosumers by empowering them to plan for their energy autonomously. I aim to connect the rise of prosumers with long-standing social movements that call for just, fair and sustainable energy systems. I draw from a rich literature of socio-energy concepts that aim to incorporate social and human dimensions into energy planning. I focus on energy justice, energy democracy, and I introduce energy sovereignty. I synthesize how these concepts together emphasize critical considerations for energy planning: “energy for whom, for what, and at whose costs?” I also introduce an additional consideration: “energy by whom?” and I conceptualize its framework in relation to electricity provision. I propose that “energy by whom?” is an essential question for re-envisioning a new energy paradigm and designing a low-carbon energy future.

Overall, this dissertation contributes analytical and conceptual tools for low carbon energy systems, which together provide novel socio-technical approaches for planning towards a low carbon energy future, and urge on the paradigm shift to just and sustainable energy for all.

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