Reliability and accountability of off-grid solar electricity in Senegal

By Emilie Etienne, Clare St Lawrence

Solar mini-grids for rural electrification are burgeoning in Africa, supported by major international players, cooperation programmes and African States. Despite significant financial and technical commitments, the continuity of electricity through decentralized solar solutions is uncertain: designed to work for at least ten years, the actual lifespan of these infrastructures in the Global South is often much shorter. The reliability of off-grid rural electricity seems to have been relegated to a second-order issue.
The concept of accountability, i.e., the obligation to explain and justify conduct (Bovens, 2007), offers an analytical framework for understanding the interactions of actors related to maintenance, by questioning their responsibilities, information flows, sanctions and incentives. Based on the study of a large public-private solar mini-grid project in Senegal, this article analyses the construction of electricity reliability as a political issue by following multiple and intersecting accountability chains between actors at different levels.
The article shows that, paradoxically, both electricity companies and institutional actors have a relatively comprehensive overview of the problems of mini-grid reliability, based on various information channels regarding the state of infrastructures. Two levels of interpretation explain the weak construction of electricity reliability as an object of accountability. On the one hand, the regulation exercised by the State vis-à-vis electricity companies is limited, with the intention of not making them accountable. This supportive approach recognizes that companies are working in complex legal and economic frameworks. On the other hand, competing objectives attached to “cogent indicators”, access to energy and the promotion of a market model, relegate the issue of service reliability to the bottom of the political agenda.

  • solar mini-grids
  • accountability
  • maintenance
  • sustainability
  • Senegal
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