Africa’s Photovoltaic Turn: changing geographies of energy access, poverty, and justice in northern Uganda

Dr Paul Munro1

1University of New South Wales, Kensington, Sydney, Australia


The use of solar photovoltaic (PV) power is booming in East Africa. Once a rare, novel power source used by elites, over the past ten years the technology has become a ubiquitous feature of the East African landscape and is regularly used by poorer households, even in remote, rural locations. Kenya and Uganda, in particular, exemplify these trends. A recent World Bank report estimates that the two countries’ markets for off-grid photovoltaic products – both in terms of volume of products sold and financial value – ranked second and third only to the much more populous nation of India. In this presentation, drawing on a case study of a small village in northern Uganda, I provide a critical examination of the social dimensions of this energy transition. Drawing on interviews and observation data, I show how new photovoltaic technologies has helped to create opportunities as well as problems that are challenging and changing the rhythms of rural life. Specifically, I focus on the politics and power dynamics that surround the geography of PV electricity access, and how new energy poverty and energy justice challenges have emerged in the context of Africa’s photovoltaic turn.


Dr Munro is a Scientia Research Fellow and member of the Environmental Humanities group at the University of New South Wales (UNSW). His research is grounded in the fields of political ecology and environmental history, and has written extensively on forest governance and energy justice, with a particular geographical focus on Sub-Saharan Africa. His current research is focused on the changing geographies of energy poverty. How the emergence of new energy technologies, new trade dynamics and financial platforms have reshaped how people realise their energy needs in energy poor contexts.

The perplexing persistence of the development community’s faith in market-based energy access projects in the global South

Dr Jonathan Balls1

1University Of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia


This paper examines the persistence of support from the development community for delivering energy access through decentralised market-based initiatives as opposed to state-led interventions. This trend continues despite the fact that, in practice, market-based initiatives remain stubbornly subsidy dependent and recent state interventions have had large-scale reach. Over the last two decades, prompted by the UN’s Millennium Development Goals and SE4All initiative, there has been a sustained international focus on extending energy access in the global South. International development organisations, looking to support energy access, have primarily directed funding to market-based initiatives that sell energy products to low-income households – most notably initiatives for cookstoves and solar products. A bullish narrative of market-based initiatives being primed to deliver energy to millions has become firmly established. In this paper, we look at recent initiatives for the sale of solar systems and cookstoves in rural India. We examine how, while seeing some success, they have remained reliant upon non-market funding and have struggled to scale-up. We argue that a valorisation of market-based initiatives coupled with suspicion about state interventions and financing is limiting the effectiveness of the development sector’s efforts to support energy access in the global South.


Jonathan is a New Generation Network (NGN) Post-Doctoral Fellow at the School of Geography and Australia India Institute, University of Melbourne. He works on energy, economic and development geography. His research has focused on the off-grid solar power market in North India, bottom of the pyramid capitalism, frugal innovation and entrepreneurship, and electricity market governance in India.

Introducing ‘retrofit poverty’: the inequality of opportunity to improve the energy performance of the home

Dr Nicola Willand1, Dr Sarah Robertson1, Professor Ralph Horne1, Professor Emma Baker2, Dr Trivess Moore1

1Rmit University, Melbourne, Australia

2University of Adelaide, Adelaide, Australia


Combining the concepts of energy justice, poverty, social practices and the capabilities approach, this conceptual paper argues for research into retrofit poverty as the inequality of opportunity to improve the energy performance of the home. Following the Paris Agreement, the reduction of carbon emissions and the protection of vulnerable people have become dual political imperatives. Retrofitting the existing housing stock can benefit both the environment and householder health. However, retrofitting is a voluntary, private, self-driven and often costly activity. Current retrofit policy tools, which rely on market-based schemes and assume householders as empowered and rational actors, have had limited success, and there is concern about inequitable access to their benefits. Commonly cited barriers are low income, lack of information and the split-incentive, yet geographical, socio-economic indices have proven inadequate predictors of retrofit activity, and the stereotype of the profit-driven landlord has been challenged. Hence, policies addressing the social impacts of low carbon transitions must look beyond energy subsistence poverty to retrofit participation disadvantage. A better understanding of householder retrofit experiences and practices is needed to reveal the mechanisms that shape the capabilities needed for retrofitting and to reveal inequalities of opportunities to reduce energy costs and emissions.


Dr Nicola Willand is a Lecturer at the School of Property, Construction and Project Management at RMIT University and a Chief Investigator in the ARC Linkage grant project Household energy efficiency transitions (HEET): Scaling up affordable urban retrofit. As an architect by background, Dr Willand approaches sustainability in the built environment as a socio‐technical system. Her research interests focus on strategies that minimise environmental impacts and life cycle costs while maximising productivity, health and social justice. Her current work explores residential retrofits as an opportunity for health and equity.

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Low-Carbon Frontier: Towards a Relational Geography of Energy Transitions

Dr Tyler Harlan1

1Cornell University, Ithaca, USA


Scholars typically talk about decarbonization through the lens of energy transitions, which entail the eventual replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy. Recent work in economic geography complicates this notion by analyzing how localized policies and institutions shape transition pathways across space. Yet few studies examine the relations between places that influence how and why low-carbon technologies are deployed. Such analysis is crucial to understand how the costs and benefits of energy transitions are distributed, especially between resource-rich regions that produce energy and cities that consume it.

This paper argues that the transition to large-scale renewable energy is creating new ‘low-carbon frontiers’. By low-carbon frontier, I mean the discursive and material construction of spaces as stores of low-carbon value, extracted through energy installations and transmitted to cities. I show how ‘frontier’ discourse, the lack of state regulation, and histories of extraction and dispossession can enable energy firms and governments to profit from natural resources at the expense of local livelihoods. At the same time, low-carbon frontiers are subject to the boom and bust cycles that accompany traditional extractive industries. This paper thus argues that frontiers are central to the relational geographies that accompany and shape energy transitions.


Tyler Harlan is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future at Cornell University. In August, he will begin as Assistant Professor in Environmental Studies at Loyola Marymount University. His research examines the political economy and uneven socio-environmental impacts of China’s low-carbon transformation, and the implications of this transformation for other industrializing countries. He received a PhD in Geography from the University of California, Los Angeles, an MPhil in Resource Management and Geography from the University of Melbourne, and a BA in Anthropology and East Asian Studies from Vanderbilt University. He can be reached at

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