Causes of Success and Failure of Stand-alone Solar Electric Systems in Rural Guatemala
Corsair, Hope Jennifer
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The causes of success and failure of stand-alone solar electric systems in rural Guatemala may be technical, institutional, cultural or economic. This research examines these causes using a mixed-methods approach that includes interviews with members of poor, rural communities to which stand-alone solar electric systems have been donated, physical inspections of these systems, and conversations with development professionals working in rural electrification. “Success” is a complex concept, here defined as a combination of user perception of success, utility to users, and optimality as a source of energy. Economics are a strong driver of system success: systems generally offer users cost savings, but few income generating opportunities; access to capital when components need replacement is a significant obstacle; and relatively wealthier beneficiaries are better able to maintain donated systems than are their poorer neighbors. The institutions and relationships that surround systems also influence success and failure: local institutions like energy committees can help systems be more successful, while national and regional institutions such as Guatemala’s weak justice system and extensive organized crime networks contribute to failure. Beneficiary sense of “ownership” and monetary contributions to projects by beneficiaries are not contributors to system success, while accountability to donors and ongoing donor involvement are. The quality of the design and installed components of the physical system may have little bearing on system success. Donors must be clear about their own and beneficiaries’ definitions of success, and must be willing to challenge received wisdom about what will lead to more and less successful projects. Defining success as a high rate of operable systems will tend to favor relatively wealthier beneficiaries, leading to questions of social justice and whether energy interventions are most appropriate to those living in extreme poverty. Further, physically interconnected energy systems such as microgrids can lead to stronger social and institutional connections than do the physically independent systems included in this research.