Solar Transitions

Presentation of the project

The research project SOLAR TRANSITIONS will investigate ways to implement and use solar energy in local communities in developing countries that are viable in the long run and contribute to social and economic development and climate adaptation.  This project will provide knowledge on factors influencing the opportunities of people to achieve technological and social changes through activities linked to village scale solar energy systems, but the insights will to a large extent be relevant also for the knowledge on how to implement and use decentralised renewable energy supply in general.

The factors influencing the opportunities to achieve widespread use of solar photovoltaic technologies in developing countries will be investigated through research in India and Kenya. A diversity of social factors will be studied at the household, village, regional and national levels. In India, the research group will investigate experiences with the way that village scale solar energy supply has been implemented through the collaboration of partners at different geographical levels and how it has been organized at the local level, and how barriers have been overcome in the political, economic, cultural & legal aspects. The focus is also on the ways in which these technolgical and social changes work for people in terms of poverty reduction, income generation, health, education and information services, water supply, and other elements influencing the quality of life. The effects on vulnerability and adaptation to climatic challenges are important parts of this theme. In Kenya, the project will cooperate with a local community, and through action research, in collaboration with local groups, explore how the lessons learned in India can be adapted to the Kenyan context. Through the research activities in India and Kenya, and the efforts to transfer lessons between these countries, the project will explore strategic ways of systematically transferring positive lessons between geographical contexts and adapting them to the local and national contexts and needs, culture and values. The project will aslo critically analyse established practices in conventional energy policy.


This research project is motivated by the urgent need for creating and implementing new models for energy supply in developing countries. Serious and acute poverty problems as well as increased climate stress are among the reasons for the urgency for technological and social changes, including increased access to affordable energy services. Although several technologies exist with the potential of improving energy supply for a vast number of people, few people have access to the technologies. This is partly due to the fact that attempts to make these technologies more widely available have not put enough emphasis on social contexts and the different ways that these technologies can actually be implemented and used at the local level in different geographical contexts. Moreover, strong, vested interests often maintain business as usual in technological solutions, and the needs of the poor are often not quite understood or prioritised by governments or international actors.

This project aims to give attention to existing achievements and lessons that can be learned from them, and will thus contribute to the understanding of success factors and lessons learned in the process of implementation and use of village scale solar power plants as well as how such experiences can be transferred and adapted to other communities and countries, developing their solar energy sector as well as their distributed energy provision in general. The research project is intended to be useful for governments, development agencies, renewable energy actors and others who are involved in the planning and implementation of solar energy and other decentralized energy options.

The solar resources in developing countries constitute a large potential for providing energy from the sun. However, the factors influencing the opportunities for implementation and use of solar energy technologies are many, and transitions in socio-technical systems are needed in order to give individuals, household, communities, organizations and governments the opportunity to take advantages of existing solar energy technologies. There is a need for knowledge on socio-technical models that can make the technology accessible and useful for people, especially those who have no access to modern energy services. Knowledge on these issues are important for understanding how the world can achieve widespread implementation and use of solar energy technologies, and how the barriers for this can be overcome. The insights will to a large extent be relevant also for the knowledge on how to implement and use decentralised renewable energy supply in general.

Research questions

The research project SOLAR TRANSITIONS concentrates on the social aspects of technological change, including barriers and opportunities at different scales. Social innovations related to technological change are both investigated and created in the project, in relation to solar energy technology (solar photovoltaics/solar cells). The project also investigates the ways in which such technology can contribute to wider social changes at the grassroots level and at other levels of society and identifies institutional and political change that are needed in order to facilitate changes at the local level.

These are the main research questions in the project:

 • How can one successfully implement and socially organise the use of community solar power plants in ways that facilitate climate adaptation and social and economic development, and are economically and socially viable and replicable in a larger scale?

• What are the success factors to such implementation within the areas of inclusion of stakeholders, formation of actor networks, public-private partnerships, institutional arrangements and adaptation of political and regulatory framework conditions?

• How can the investigated model be transferred to another context, in particular in terms of adaptation of framework conditions, implementation measures, social organisation (including operation and maintenance) and end-user benefits?

In other words, the research project investigates how a larger number of people in developing countries can be able to use already existing technology in ways that benefit them. How can they get access to the necessary information, and to lessons from other local communities who have already implemented the technology? How can they get access to funding, what should be the role of the state, what are the technical and practical details that influence the success or failure in the decentralised use of solar photovoltaic systems? And how can the electricity supply be organised in ways that makes it useful for all parts of the populations, including marginalised groups, and improves their quality of life? These questions will be investigated through the case studies in India and Kenya, from the perspectives of the different partners in the interdisciplinary research group.

Theoretical approach

The Solar Transitions research project considers technological change as a social learning process, recognising that a whole range of societal factors influence the opportunities for people and communities to achieve technological and social changes. Building on the socio-technical systems perspective the project will conceptually contribute to the understanding of transitions in socio-technical systems and transfer of knowledge between different socio-cultural settings. Central in such transitions and transfer across contexts are the efforts of a diversity of actors at different geographical scales. During the past decades, social scientists have gained an improved understanding of the interdependent processes of social and technical change (Rohracher 2008a,b). The socio-technical systems perspective claims that technological change is an interactive process and a co-development between technology and society (Kemp 1994, Hoogma et al. 2002, Rohracher 2008b). This perspective shows that the development and transfer of novel technologies is shaped at multiple levels: by the interactions of the micro level of users, firms and households, the meso level of socio-technical regimes (such as the energy system) and the macro level of broader societal norms, values or dominant economic or governance regimes. These levels change simultaneously in a co-evolutionary process. The value of such concepts is to point to the multi-dimensionality of processes of socio-technical change, to the multiplicity of actors involved in the process and to the embeddedness of local practices and niches in various contexts with their own specific history and dynamics (Kemp et al. 2005). This research project will analyse the model of decentralised solar energy supply as part of an emerging and not-yet-established socio-technical system, which has the potential to contribute to radical transitions in energy systems. 

Case studies: India and Kenya as solar energy pioneers

India and Kenya have been selected for the proposed research because they are among the leading countries within decentralised use of solar electricity. First, the project will analyse Indian experiences with implementation and social organization of village solar power plants, and their contribution to social and economic development, poverty reduction and climate adaptation. Second, through action research, the project will actively transfer experiences from India to Kenya, both monitoring and influencing the adaptation of the Indian experiences to Kenyan local contexts. As part of this action research, the research project aims to create a local power supply project in a Kenyan village, which will also serve as a demonstration project for interested actors elsewhere. 

The Indian case which will be investigated in the research project, is the implementation of community solar power plants that has been carried out in approximately 21 villages in the Sunderban Islands in West Bengal from 1996 and onwards. In addition to qualitative interviews with the solar energy actors involved in the implementation and operation of solar systems in several villages, two of the villages will be investigated in-depth, through surveys and qualitative interviews with village households and businesses with and without connection to the solar power plants. The research project will also interview with representatives of national and international stakeholders.  

The Kenyan part of the research project will to a large extent contribute to and analyse ongoing processes of socio-technical change in Kenya. As part of action research, the research project is working on the creation of a local power supply project in a Kenyan village, which will also serve as a demonstration project for interested actors in Kenya and elsewhere. This demonstration project will be created in close collaboration with the local population, who will be the central actors in this process. An important part of this work will be to carefully adapt the socio-technical model for village scale solar power supply to the local and national context in Kenya. The lessons learned here will probably be relevant and adaptable for many other villages in Kenya and elsewhere in African as well as other developing countries.