Three Principles of Community-Owned Renewable Energy

Global Challenges, Local Solutions: Series #3

By Mohammad Pakravan, Green Empowerment Technical Program Manager

In my last article on renewable energy, I mentioned that the public utility provider for the Malaysian state of Sarawak, known as SEB, has set up an initiative to provide reliable electricity access to every household in the state by 2025.  While this is an admirable initiative and will no doubt have many positive effects in the region, it is not enough. In this article, I explain what could be done in tandem with SEB’s scheme to really improve the livelihoods of people in rural communities. 

Community Members Must Own and Regulate Their Own Electricity

The communities should be system-owners and setup tariffs and caps themselves. This enables communities to allocate available resources to plan for value-generating activities for the use of customized services. For instance, providing electricity to a community center enables women to weave baskets during the evening and allows for other community-based activities. I visited a community in January with a pineapple processing cooperative. The electricity was used for processing pineapples in order to sell pineapple-based products which are more valuable than the pineapples themselves. Under the current SEB plan, such income generating activities are not covered. Therefore, it’s not likely that improved household scale electricity access will lead to effective income generating activities in the target communities. 

Community Members Must Maintain and Service Their Own Electricity

If the communities are owners of their electricity system, they can decide how to use electricity based on the opportunities they have to improve their livelihoods while maintaining their electricity systems. This guarantees effective system maintenance rather than waiting for the government to respond to a failed system. 

Community Members Must Pay For Their Own Electricity

The government’s initiative aims to provide free electrical services. While this sounds very generous,  as we know from the last four decades of development initiatives across the globe, free services often create more problems than they solve and prevent communities from escaping the cycle of poverty.

A community that receives free electricity is likely to expect receiving free cookstoves, free water services, free medicine, and so on. Multiple studies have shown that the nature of some commodity or service being offered as free devalues its effectiveness and how people perceive its value. 

I have witnessed this issue in the case of free, improved cookstoves in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa previously. The improved cookstoves that were offered for free usually ended up being stacked next to commonly used open fire or traditional stoves. However, the improved cookstoves in the local markets that households purchased have been used effectively to replace open fire or traditional stoves, which has led to improved health effects. 

Similarly, free electricity not only may lead to an expectation for every service to be free, but also is not likely to lead to escaping the poverty cycle through income generating activity especially when there is a limiting factor on it to be solely used for residential appliances up to a certain limit per day.

Technology Innovations to make Locally Owned and Operated Systems more Affordable and Reliable

Green Empowerment is expanding our research and development initiative to build new technology that makes microgrids more reliable and affordable for local practitioners. Please visit our website to learn more and support the initiative.

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