Content vs. Concern: Facing the challenges of research in sustainability


[Photo from Kivu Green Energy.]

Working towards sustainability, especially in an international development context, takes forethought, patience, and humility. It means taking time to understand the social, political, and economic context in which sustainability problems are framed, and working to understand the assets and concerns of the individuals and households that make up the community that work is being done in. Moving too quickly can result in sustainability programs and policies that are ineffective, create unintended side effects, or exacerbate problems that the community is already wrestling with.

Just about any sustainability practitioner or theoretician would agree with the statement outlined above, but that doesn’t always mean they’re able to act on it. There may be a theoretically correct way to go about development partnerships, but those partnerships are always conducted by individuals with their own interests and incentives. And in academia, those incentives are clear: Publish content. I’m not suggesting that academic participation in sustainable development is fundamentally compromised, but there are reasons for us to turn a critical eye on ourselves.

As a two-year Masters’ student, those conflicting incentives ring even stronger. For us, creating new scholarship means setting a scope, defining a problem, and beginning research quickly, without the luxury of time for considering all perspectives or distant implications of our work. SEAS’ Masters’ Project program, basically a “trial by fire” into academic research, exemplifies this phenomenon: Students are doing incredible work on sustainability scholarship across the world, but there are no spaces to take a breath.

In this post (and as I wrap up my own Masters’ Project and my career at SEAS!) I’m hoping to pause and take that breath.

Masters’ Project: Fueling a Transition to Renewable Energy in Congo

My Masters’ Project is the product of a brand-new partnership between Michigan Ph.D. and Beni, DRC resident Jonathan Shaw and Professor Jose Alfaro here at SEAS. To be sure, there are many sustainability issues to tackle in the DRC. Because of their colonial history, the dominance of extractive industries, and persistent instability, progress on sustainable development goals in the DRC has been slow. Notably, the country uses less than 1% of the electricity that the United States does, per capita, and only 14% of the country’s 79 million residents has access to electricity.

Jon Shaw founded Kivu Green Energy in 2015 to change that. The social enterprise looks to provide “affordable, reliable, and clean” electricity to the city of Beni in Eastern Congo. While their first solar project has been a success, they’re looking to reach more of Beni with their next project, but they’re not sure how to best meet the needs of a whole community using only renewable electricity sources.

My team and I were brought in to answer that question. From a technical and economic standpoint, how can Beni power itself on renewables? And would it save money from the diesel- and traditional-biomass-heavy regime that currently provides energy services? We’ve already seen evidence that microgrids can lead to positive outcomes in expanding access to high-quality energy, but research on the Congolese context in particular is less well-developed. In particular, we took a hard look at the potential for a biomass digester to sustainably generate electricity from burning by-products of local agriculturalists’ crops. If such a project were successful, it could drive benefits for both urban residents and local farmers and serve as a model for energy access for the region.

Although microgrids and providing renewable energy access appears to be a no-brainer,  difficult questions lurk under the surface:

What’s the role of funding? What say do funders have on Kivu Green Energy’s activities?

At the scale that Kivu Green Energy’s looking to provide energy, they’re looking at up-front costs in the millions of dollars. While there are organizations out there who are willing to fund this type of investment, they might also expect a return on that investment, or ability to exercise some control over KGE’s operations. Although in many cases the project couldn’t happen without funding, it also forces us to ask uncomfortable questions about the tradeoffs between venture-fund profitability and expanding the use of basic resources to those who need it most. And in particular, what role does our research play here? Will it be used to justify a business scheme that ultimately might have negative impacts on the poorest households?

Where do we draw the line for the implications of technology choices?

The impetus for this study and Kivu Green Energy’s mission in general arises in part from the social and environmental impacts of diesel electricity generation. In Beni, diesel generation is up to a factor of four times more expensive than national-grid electricity available in Kinshasa. But it’s the environmental impacts, via local air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and the social impacts of uncertain fuel supply lines that have made it a truly untenable fuel source in Beni.

Through a technical-economic model of microgrid operations, we hoped to take an objective look at the benefits and risks of three potential generation technologies (solar, biomass, and diesel), plus energy storage. For the purposes of our model, we attempted to separate out the technical-economic components of energy generation from the social-environmental ones. This way, we can make a purely quantitative selection on cost-effectiveness alone. But social-environmental factors need to be weighed when designing a truly sustainable system.

I have concerns about the biomass gasifier system that we propose. While the potential benefits of sourcing fuel from within the Beni community are high, the potential drawbacks of a half-baked system are clear–so much so that the IPCC felt the need to include them in their assessment report on mitigation (p. 884). Without an appropriate governance structure, demand for biomass for bioenergy can contribute to climate change, exacerbate gender disparities, and distort land use, putting more pressure on forest resources and those with the least land tenure.

Unfortunately, none of those concerns fit nicely into a program that simulates grid operation–and as a result they are not emphasized in our final work.

Who gets to participate?

The challenges above highlight the risks of technology change and the ever-present tension of external investment, but they don’t add up to a doomed project. Innovative participatory and collaborative governance structures, even at a small scale, might provide a path forward for a democratically-selected energy system that’s economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable.

Those processes also take time, money, and capacity–resources that Kivu Green Energy doesn’t have in abundance. Stakeholder engagement has not been a major part of designing how electricity might be generated in Beni or who it might serve, even though this system might have wide-ranging implications for Beni’s air, land, and economy. While there are reasonable arguments to be made that popular participation is less effective on highly structured, technical problems, some regard citizen participation in sustainable development as a moral imperative, and they point to the potential for participation to cut through economic or gender power differentials. Especially given the potential disruption of farming practices proposed to Beni’s local farmers to support a biomass fuel market, participation seems critical.

Looking forward and deep breaths

Simply put, energy transitions are a complex process that affect many stakeholder groups. Participatory processes might mitigate some friction and ensure all stakeholders’ assets and concerns are considered, but these processes require time and resources that are scarce for both practitioners and researchers. If we want to implement transitions to sustainability in an ethical and effective way, it might behoove us to take a breath first.




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