Energy projects have the potential to provide critical services for human well-being and help eradicate poverty. However, too many projects fail because their approach oversimplifies the problem to energy poverty: viewing it as a narrow problem of access to energy services and technologies. This thesis presents an alternative paradigm for energy project development, grounded in theories of socio-energy systems, recognizing that energy and poverty coexist as a social, economic, and technological problem.
First, it shows that social, economic, and energy insecurity creates a complex energy-poverty nexus, undermining equitable, fair, and sustainable energy futures in marginalized communities. Indirect and access-based measures of energy poverty are a mismatch for the complexity of the energy-poverty nexus. The thesis, using the concept of social value of energy, develops a methodology for systematically mapping benefits, burdens and externalities of the energy system, illustrated using empirical investigations in communities in Nepal, India, Brazil, and Philippines. The thesis argues that key determinants of the energy-poverty nexus are the functional and economic capabilities of users, stressors and resulting thresholds of capabilities characterizing the energy and poverty relationship. It proposes ‘energy thriving’ as an alternative standard for evaluating project outcomes, requiring energy systems to not only remedy human well-being deficits but create enabling conditions for discovering higher forms of well-being.
Second, a novel, experimental approach to sustainability interventions is developed, to improve the outcomes of energy projects. The thesis presents results from a test bed for community sustainability interventions established in the village of Rio Claro in Brazil, to test innovative project design strategies and develop a primer for co-producing sustainable solutions. The Sustainable Rio Claro 2020 initiative served as a longitudinal experiment in participatory collective action for sustainable futures.
Finally, results are discussed from a collaborative project with grassroots practitioners to understand the energy-poverty nexus, map the social value of energy and develop energy thriving solutions. Partnering with local private and non-profit organizations in Uganda, Bolivia, Nepal and Philippines, the project evaluated and refined methods for designing and implementing innovative energy projects using the theoretical ideas developed in the thesis, subsequently developing a practitioner toolkit for the purpose.