Call for papers for a special issue on the uptake and diffusion of solar power in Africa (in Energy Research & Social Science)

Call for papers for a special issue on the uptake and diffusion of solar power in Africa (in Energy Research & Social Science)

Edited by Robert Byrne, Ulrich Hansen, James Haselip, Ivan Nygaard and David Ockwell

The very first special issue (SI) published in ERSS was on “Renewable Energy in Sub-Saharan Africa: Contributions from the Social Sciences” (Vol. 5), covering a range of energy issues and technologies, setting out the broad agenda for social scientists conducting research on renewable energy in Africa (Hancock, 2015). However, the pace and scale at which solar PV technology, in particular, is being diffused across the African continent justifies its own special issue, to explore the dimensions and driving forces of this particular socio-technical transition (the original SI had only one paper focussed on solar PV). In this call for papers, we propose going beyond the previous SI by adopting a perspective explicitly focussed on the neglected socio-cultural and political dimensions of the sustainable energy access problématique – elements the original SI touched on but did not explicitly develop.

Across Africa, market forces are working to complement or replace the role of state and donor agencies in supporting what has previously been considered a ‘niche’ technology – solar PV (Bazilian et al., 2013; Ockwell and Byrne, 2016; Rolffs, Ockwell and Byrne, 2015). This investment is occurring at multiple scales, from the sale of small-scale pico solar products and solar home systems, to mini-grids and large scale multi-megawatt on-grid PV installations (Hansen et al., 2015). However, these trends are manifesting unevenly across political and economic boundaries.

While numerous authors point to the central importance of understanding the political and socio-cultural dimensions to the technological transition taking place across developing countries – albeit in an uneven manner – few authors have explored these aspects in depth, so as to shed light on their determinative force. Indeed, the wider topic of sustainable energy has been predominantly analysed from the perspectives of technological change/innovations and economic feasibility studies, within a field that is still dominated by the disciplines of economics and engineering. This two-dimensional “technology-finance” perspective has resulted in a “scholarly deficit” (Ockwell and Byrne 2016) in research on solar PV, and energy access in developing countries more broadly – this despite the increasingly high profile international policy attention being afforded to the sustainable energy access agenda (e.g. the UN’s Sustainable Energy for All by 2030 initiative and the specific Sustainable Development Goal, SDG7, on sustainable energy access). Equally, it is useful to reflect on the relationship between cultural, political and social transitions themselves, and how these in turn shape, steer and drive market forces and the transition to solar PV technology.

While some recent work in the field of sustainable energy access has witnessed the beginnings of a “socio-cultural turn” (Ockwell and Byrne 2016) – with a small number of contributions (including a handful from the previous ERSS SI on energy access) that operationalize theoretical insights from social anthropology (Winther, 2008; Campbell et al., 2016; Campbell and Sallis, 2013), socio-technical transitions (Ahlborg and Sjöstedt, 2015; Rolffs et al., 2015; Sovacool et al., 2011; Ulsrud et al., 2015; Ulsrud et al., 2011; Hansen and Nygaard, 2014; Nygaard and Hansen, 2016) and common pool resource management perspectives (Gollwitzer et al., 2016) – work on the political aspects of this field is almost non-existent, save from a handful of contributions that deal with energy and climate change more broadly (see, e.g., Shen and Power, 2016; Tyfield et al., 2015; Ahlborg et al., 2015; Newell and Phillips, 2016; Baker et al., 2014; Baker, 2015).

A gap thus exists in understanding the political and socio-cultural dimensions to this rapidly unfolding transition. Detailed analyses can provide insights into the importance and implications of these neglected dimensions in the process of creating or facilitating markets for small scale PV, in adopting certain policy instruments, in initiating, designing, negotiating and constructing large scale PV projects and, critically, in seeking to understand the extent to which poor and marginalised women and men will gain or lose from these different pathways (Leach et al., 2010) to electrification.

As such, we are interested in exploring some of the fundamental development implications of new markets and technology diffusion, e.g. capacity strengthening and the industrial spill-over effects of the transition of solar PV. Such analysis is also important as the transition to sustainable energy access is highly uneven across different continents. Further, it varies sharply within these countries, across urban and rural contexts, and between high and low-income communities (Bridge et al., 2013; Mitchell, 2007). For this special issue, we solicit full-length research articles that are conceptually-led and empirically-grounded, analysing their topics through a range of theoretical fields including sustainability transitions, critical policy studies, political economy perspectives, sociology and anthropology, amongst others. We welcome submissions from researchers whose work:

• Goes beyond an appreciation of the ‘classical’ determinants of technological change as understood in the innovations literature (techno-economic thinking), to explore the more complex and subtle mechanisms of change that are inherently political, socio-cultural and geographical.

• Aims to understand the driving forces, business models, and implications of the emergence of market-led investment in solar power, away from a mainly state and donor-driven model of niche development in African countries.

• Is both academic and of practical value; contributing to an emerging critical literature aimed at challenging the silo treatment of access to sustainable energy as an issue that concerns purely finance and engineering, by reflecting on real-world experience.

• Is able to inform policy makers, energy planning agencies and investors on lessons learned, sharing experiences from similar yet different contexts, central to the UN’s ‘Sustainable Energy for All’ initiative.

Interested authors should submit an abstract no longer than 350 words to guest editors David Ockwell ( and James Haselip ( with the subject “ERSS Africa Solar Abstract” by April 1, 2017.

In the abstract, please include contact information and institutional affiliation. Based on submitted abstracts, the guest editors of this special issue will invite manuscripts for full consideration. Completed draft manuscript drafts of 4000-9000 words are expected by August 1, 2017, after which they will be double-blind peer-reviewed for a final publication decision. The final acceptance deadline is March 1 2018 and the special issue will be published in Volume 39 of the journal, printed in May 2018


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Ahlborg, H., & Sjöstedt, M. (2015). Small-scale hydropower in Africa: Socio-technical designs for renewable energy in Tanzanian villages. Energy Research & Social Science, 5, 20-33.

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Campbell, B., & Sallis, P. (2013). Low-carbon yak cheese: transition to biogas in a Himalayan socio-technical niche. Interface focus, 3(1), 20120052.

Gollwitzer, L., Ockwell, D., & Ely, A. (2016). Institutional Innovation in the Management of Pro-Poor Energy Access in East Africa. SPRU Working Paper Series (ISSN 2057-6668). Brighton: SPRU, University of Sussex.

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Sovacool, B. K., D’Agostino, A. L., & Bambawale, M. J. (2011). The socio-technical barriers to Solar Home Systems (SHS) in Papua New Guinea: “Choosing pigs, prostitutes, and poker chips over panels”. Energy Policy, 39(3), 1532-1542.

Tyfield, D., Ely, A., & Geall, S. (2015). Low carbon innovation in China: from overlooked opportunities and challenges to transitions in power relations and practices. Sustainable Development, 23(4), 206-216.

Ulsrud, K., Winther, T., Palit, D., & Rohracher, H. (2015). Village-level solar power in Africa: accelerating access to electricity services through a socio-technical design in Kenya. Energy Research & Social Science, 5, 34-44.

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