A sustainability framework for off-grid power systems in developing countries

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


For many of the nearly 771 million people currently without electricity access, distributed generation, rather than a connection to a large centralised grid, will be the norm. Distributed energy such as stand-alone solar photovoltaic (PV) systems, mini-grids and pico-lantern products are viable options used to complement or supersede grid-based solutions since they can be deployed in smaller batches and avoid the need for the more costly transmission and distribution equipment.Success of an off-grid project, or programme composed of multiple projects, requires that it is sustainable; it must survive long enough to achieve its design objectives and promise of progress for its users. For society at large, failure of sustainability of projects wastes the considerable investments made towards achieving universal energy access – a direct outcome of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal Seven. For households and communities, failure undercuts potential socio-economic impacts and limits the ability for people to live with basic dignities of education, health, and economic opportunity – all of which require electricity access.The record of sustainability of off-grid programmes are mixed, with some achieving degrees of serviceability and others failing altogether. The literature describes a complex web of interrelated sustainability factors at play in off-grid electricity access projects. They are commonly organised across economic, technical, social, organizational, and external classifications. There is currently no general template or formula that, if applied, produces a consistently sustainable project. An analysis of the literature herein around project sustainability has revealed inconsistencies in the scope, definition, comprehensiveness of evaluation methods and toolkits to capture sustainability. Literature at the project-level literature is mostly composed of anecdotal evidence.A review in the thesis of specific sustainability issues affecting projects confirms ongoing challenges and refreshes the current understanding of sustainability. Three new case studies are presented in the thesis which reveal new operational sustainability issues and provide insights into the limitations that project design has on operations, all of which are previously undocumented in the literature. The analysis of the literature finds a knowledge gap which follows from a lack of systematic learning. This thesis addresses this gap by proposing a sustainability framework to systematically understand, model, and evaluate sustainability factors to better prepare future projects for success.The framework links together the design, operations, and evaluation of an off-grid project’s life-cycle using project-centric indicators. A learning dimension is overlaid on the framework to set the groundwork for retaining comparable learning generated from one project to the next. Each stage is driven by the findings from a novel model developed for a generic off-grid project which extends the functionality of a technoeconomic optimisation for sustainability analysis. A virtual operator makes operational decisions throughout a 20-year simulation of the project’s operations where time-series data and indicators can be produced in order to evaluate performance. Several new social and organisational aspects are introduced and have an impact during the operational stage: proportion of energy allotted for various end-uses, investment in training, price setting, price elasticity, and socially-driven demand responses. The model more accurately reflects the context of off-grid projects and captures dynamics that could be used in the design stage to improve sustainability prospects. Simulation results over 23 distinct scenarios demonstrate the use of indicators during the operational stage and validate the importance of operational sustainability issues. An extensive evaluation of the generic project could be repeated on others in order to produce more robust evidence for future toolkits. These contributions will be directly useful for a number of audiences: project designers, project implementers, policy makers, and for the project beneficiaries themselves.
Date of Award30 Aug 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University Of Strathclyde
SupervisorScott Strachan (Supervisor) & Stuart Galloway (Supervisor)

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