As the world continues to grapple with energy access issues, the importance of building local capacities has come to the forefront. However, discussions on this topic often revolve around technical capabilities, such as skilled labour for installing and operating energy systems. While these capabilities are undoubtedly important, the deployment of decentralised renewable energy (DRE) requires a broader range of knowledge and skills, including project development and management, the ability to establish institutional frameworks, and innovative financial mechanisms.
Our aim is to stimulate deeper reflection on what is meant by “building local capacities” to accelerate the just energy transition. What kind of knowledge and skills are needed throughout the project cycle?
Understanding energy and development opportunities for local people
It is crucial during the initiation and planning phases of energy projects to understand how people currently use their energy and how they could use it in the future to build and “enjoy prosperous and fulfilling lives” (as formulated in the Agenda 2030). The ability to secure community engagement is key in this regard; i.e., the ability to guide mutual learning processes in which the involved communities learn about the possibilities that DRE solutions offer for their lives, while the project developers learn about the context-specific energy needs and development opportunities for the communities. This area tends to be overlooked by current capacity building programmes, and there is little literature on the capacities and professional profiles necessary to meet these crucial aspects. Swilling et al. (2022) highlight the potential for using the wealth of experiences and tools from the broad field of community-driven development, which can be found in many countries in the Global South. In general terms, building local capacity for community engagement implies the development of skills (or the strengthening of existing skills) relating to the application of participatory tools (e.g., to assess energy demand or identify potential productive uses of energy), as well as the ability to establish and maintain trust and dialogue throughout the project cycle.
Moving towards the implementation of projects
Understanding a community’s needs and development opportunities is a key starting point for conceiving projects that are relevant and successful. However, planning an energy project requires the ability to manage a wide range of technical, economic and regulatory constraints. Different types of competencies are needed here: technical knowledge, financing skills, and knowledge about the applicable regulatory context and political situation of the project location. Consequently, managerial skills are essential; i.e., the ability to lead the coordinated work of diverse teams and partners to achieve the objectives of the project. This complex set of skills – which could be labelled as ‘project development and management’ – can be acquired through formal education (for example Solar Power Europe recommends the ISO 21500 Guidance on Project Management), but experience in the field is generally considered more important than formal certification (Solar Power Europe, 2022).
Building decentralised renewable energy systems
Once viable plans have been developed, the necessary financial resources secured and regulatory requirements fulfilled, the technical systems must be manufactured, installed and commissioned. At this stage, technical knowledge and skills are imperative. In our experience, this stage of the project cycle receives significant attention, with numerous programmes in the Global South addressing the skills gap in building and installation. Nevertheless, the scaling up of these programmes is still required to fulfill the goal of ensuring universal access to electricity by 2030.
Securing long term operations and maintenance
Ensuring the sustainable provision of energy services requires the availability of technical capacities to operate the systems properly and to provide post-installation services, such as maintenance and repairs. A particular challenge is the migration of the trained labour force – their training and experience makes them more employable, giving them the opportunity to work elsewhere. However, there is evidence that employees who are provided with further training opportunities tend to stay longer in their jobs (Power for All, 2022). A promising strategy for retaining local skills is to overcome the gender gap, as women are often underrepresented in technical professions within the energy sector (ibid, 2022).
Managing the end-of-life of the equipment
Finally, energy systems’ components have a limited lifespan. When thinking about and shaping the just transition, it is important to consider and develop the capacities necessary to decommission the equipment at the end of its life, in order to avoid harmful waste treatment practices and to maximise the value of the materials. This requires both technical skills and the knowledge of appropriate business models. Having institutional arrangements in place (e.g., for recycling or the safe disposal of components) to support good business management is crucial. Local governments need to understand how to best attract private investment for end-of-life management and how they can hold importers and producers accountable for their products. Suitable business models must be developed to keep the systems within the control of the producer (Balasubramanian et al., 2019). Informal waste management and often highly decentralised markets pose a particular challenge for the emergence of a circular economy in the local renewable energy sectors.
Looking beyond the project cycle
In summary, the project cycle perspective sheds light on fields that have the potential to improve local capacity building. These include community engagement, project management, the operation, maintenance and repair of systems, and their end-of-life management. But energy projects do not take place in a vacuum: they are embedded in overarching structures – both nationally and internationally – such as industry settings, financing structures, academic landscapes and political and societal frameworks. Improving these structural conditions also requires a specific set of skills and competencies.
Local products and services must be available along the whole value chain, from the manufacture of components to the integration of whole systems and the development of projects. For that, private entrepreneurship at local level must be facilitated, which requires capacities in the industry domain. The role played by commercial banks and local financiers, who provide the capital for local business, is crucial. Financial mechanisms to promote the transition, such as ownership models, must be developed and implemented.
Academia drives research and innovation capacities. However, technologies must be adapted and further developed to fit the specific conditions and needs of local communities. Local researchers need the capacities to understand the socio-economic and environmental contexts in which the technologies are applied.
The government as a rule-setting institution is a key actor in shaping the regulatory framework for the energy transition. It needs institutional capacities to regulate and create supportive environments to facilitate a sustainable transition.
There is the need to build capacities within civil society in order to bridge the gap between local energy priorities and different levels of economic and political decision making. This also plays an important role in ensuring the transition’s transparency and accountability.
Innovative approaches to capacity building for the energy transition
Our short discussion shows that capacity building goes beyond strengthening technical capabilities and beyond the project cycle. Particularly when it comes to decentralised renewables, a broader understanding of what capacities encompass is urgently required to ensure their long-term viability and maximise their development impacts. Different capacities on various levels must be strengthened to advance the just energy transition.
At the same time, it is necessary to adopt multiple approaches to build those capacities. Formal technical and academic education must still be advanced and expanded, but other formats can also contribute. The Wuppertal Institute has been supporting innovative approaches to capacity building that start by recognising the existing skills, knowledge and experiences of local energy practitioners. These approaches comprise:
(1) Peer-to-peer knowledge exchanges supported by the WISIONS of Sustainability initiative (www.wisions.net/knowledge/case-studies/). Practitioners, organisations and other stakeholders can exchange their experiences in order to learn from best practice cases or to share lessons learned.
(2) Digitally supported knowledge consolidation and dissemination tools; for instance, the knowledge hub developed under the framework of the PeopleSUN project (https://energypedia.info/wiki/Nigeria_Off-Grid_Solar_Knowledge_Hub).
(3) Capacity building programmes that combine digital tools, peer-to-peer exchange and field study visits (https://www.wisions.net/partnerships/).
We see a growing interest in innovative approaches to capacity building for driving the just energy transition. Recently,. innovative initiatives have been emerging. They are for instance targeting the specific knowledge and skills required by local entrepreneurs (Gathu 2023). Increasing and diversifying the efforts in capacity building should be prioritized by national and international actors of the sector in order to reach the pace needed for the just energy transition. We are eager to learn and collaborate with others in order to contribute to that aim.
IEA; IRENA; UNSD; World Bank; WHO (2023) Tracking SDG 7: The Energy Progress Report. World Bank, Washington DC. Available at: https://trackingsdg7.esmap.org/data/files/download-documents/sdg7-report2023-full_report.pdf
Solar Power Europe (2022) Engineering, Procurement and Construction Best Practice Guidelines / Sub-Saharan Africa edition. Available at: https://www.solarpowereurope.org/insights/thematic-reports/epc-best-practice-guidelines-sub-saharan-africa-edition
Power for All (2022) Powering Jobs Census 2022: The Energy Access Workforce. Available at: https://www.powerforall.org/resources/reports/renewable-energy-jobs-sub-saharan-africa-and-india-2022-power-all
Balasubramanian, Sneha; Clare, Dharini; Ko, Sarah (2019) Off-Grid Solar E-Waste: Impacts and Solutions in East Africa. Master’s project. Duke University. Available at: https://hdl.handle.net/10161/18419.
Kirubi Gathu (2023) Last-mile energy access and youth entrepreneurship in Kenya. Available at: https://startup-energy.org/last-mile-energy-access-and-youth-entrepreneurship-in-kenya/