770 million people worldwide still live without access to electricity.
A solution lies in renewable energy mini-grids.
As technology improves and costs drop, there is a growing consensus that local, renewable energy mini-grids are the most cost-effective and viable option to reach these populations. In order to scale-up renewable energy and mini-grid deployment, energy access programs worldwide have focused primarily on addressing key barriers such as access to finance, technology, technical and business skills, and the institutional and regulatory environment.
However, mini-grids have their challenges. We need better tools to address them.
While we recognize these key barriers, we also see a major blind-spot in the consensus view on energy access priorities. Many mini-grids fall short not because financing wasn't available, the technology didn't work or the right policy wasn't in place, but because the community was not sufficiently engaged in the process. A lack of community engagement frequently leads to unmet expectations, misunderstanding of priorities, poor cost recovery, electricity theft, and fundamentally a lack of cooperation and community investment required for success.
Community engagement is frequently mentioned as a "best-practice" approach, but what is needed by energy practitioners and project developers are adaptable processes and tools that they can use to substantively engage communities in the planning and management of their own local energy system.
We develop these tools.
The Community Energy Toolkit (COMET)
What is COMET?
With input from local communities, mini-grid developers, community development experts, and a variety of other stakeholders, Energy Action Partners has developed a participatory tool and process called COMET or Community Energy Toolkit (formerly known as The Minigrid Game) that allows community members to partner with project developers to design a community-based renewable energy mini-grid.
Using COMET, users work cooperatively to build and operate a functioning mini-grid that serves the needs of their community. Actions are both individualized, such as purchasing and operating appliances and managing an energy budget, as well as collective, such as sizing the system, setting tariffs and designing load management schemes. As a simulation-based software tool, COMET not only increases engagement and the accessibility of the topic, but also provides experiential learning opportunities and allows a facilitator to address sensitive subjects such as theft and vandalism.
Important outcomes from COMET:
Intuitive understanding of mini-grid operation and economics including the impacts of individual decisions on system behavior;
Collaborative agreement of key management decisions such as expected demand, system capacity, pricing, load management, and penalties for underpayment or theft - all of which can leverage existing norms and institutions already within the community;
Identification of local individuals and institutions to play a central role in mini-grid operations and management;
And most importantly, a recognition and utilization of local knowledge and skills.
Illustration of a facilitated COMET workshop.
Where are we now?
Earlier versions of the software were developed and tested, primarily as a teaching tool, in our field-based workshops on energy access and community development in India, Indonesia and Malaysia. In June 2017, we held a series of COMET (formerly known as The Minigrid Game) workshops with three rural communities in the Ulu Papar region of Sabah, Malaysia. These were our first community deployments and were well-received by community members, with very encouraging feedback. We have since deployed COMET with seven more communities in Malaysia and Myanmar and are set to use COMET in three more communities this year in Somaliland, in the Horn of Africa.
The latest version of COMET is ready to be used with communities and project developers for new and (redesigning) existing mini-grids. We are also continuing development of new features, including a module on productive use. This feature would enable communities to plan investments in income-generating activities, such as agro-processing equipment, while also understanding their impact on the economics and operation of the mini-grid.