Failing to Learn from Failure is Undermining Energy Access: Why the Lack of Transparent Discussion is Putting SDG7 at Risk
In 2019, close to 760 million people did not have access to electricity, and around 4 billion still lacked access to clean, efficient, convenient, safe, reliable and affordable energy for cooking. Due to COVID-19 and the lockdowns and economic turmoil it has caused, these numbers are likely to be even higher today.
Yet despite this clear and growing need, projects that contribute to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG7) of “affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all” frequently fail. These failures go unreported all too often. As a result, mistakes or ineffective approaches are repeated rather than learned from. This is a major problem given that SDG7 comprises two of the biggest energy-related challenges facing society: the global transition to sustainable energy, and the provision of universal energy access. Addressing these challenges requires collaboration between diverse actors and an open conversation about what does – and does not – work.
Understanding Failure in Energy and Development
About a year ago, we were part of a small team of researchers at University College London that kickstarted a conversation about failure in energy and development. We set up a study on this subject because we wanted to know what failure means to different actors across the sector, understand the different types of failures that occur, and explore why it is so rarely discussed. Collectively we have witnessed numerous examples from around the world of improved cookstoves, solar systems, biogas plants and other technologies that have failed to achieve their intended impact or have proven to be unsustainable in the longer term. But when we explored research focused on off-grid electricity generation and cooking projects in low- and middle-income countries, we found only 37 peer-reviewed articles which talked about failure, out of the thousands of papers published on these topics. And although a third of these 37 articles specifically set out to examine failure, none provided first-hand accounts of it.
Outside of the academic literature, we did not have to look far for examples of failed projects, as a member of our team was involved in a failed biogas project in the Chocó region on Colombia’s Pacific coast. The initiative aimed to provide a small, off-grid community with a sustainable cooking solution that would not only meet local energy needs, but also address issues around waste. Working with the community, its leaders and representatives of local government, the project installed a small biogas plant. However, the plant failed within just a few months, plagued by technical, logistical, social and cultural challenges. When the project finally ended, the team simply dispersed – relieved to move on from their disheartening experience. To this day, the learnings from the failed Chocó project live on in desk drawers and memories, rather than in written outputs that the wider energy and development community could learn from.
Moving across the continent and backwards in time, it’s easy to find other instances of failure in energy projects. For instance, in Latin America between the 1980s and 2000s there were numerous initiatives exploring solar home systems as electrification options for rural households. However, the programmes deploying these solutions were either run by non-governmental organisations or national governments, often giving these systems to their beneficiaries for free. This led to issues around lack of ownership and value attached to these systems, which were effectively viewed as expensive handouts. This was compounded by limited local capacity for maintenance, leading users to abandon the systems as soon as they malfunctioned. While solar home systems are now thriving under different delivery models, led predominantly by the private sector, free giveaways of energy solutions are still rampant today – and they’re plagued by similar problems.
However, business solutions to energy access are also subject to failure, as seen in the example of Inyenyeri, a private sector producer and distributer of biomass pellets and stoves in Rwanda. The company was a poster child of the clean cooking sector for over a decade, but it ceased operations in 2020, leaving the global clean cooking community disappointed and keen to move on from this failure. As is the case with many other failed projects, programmes and companies, there has been little effort to understand what exactly went wrong with this business and how future initiatives can avoid a similar fate. An article that explores some of these failures has just been published this month, two years after the company’s closure. But it lacks the analytical depth needed to help other clean cooking initiatives and businesses avoid the same fate.
The Importance of Learning from Failure
This is concerning – not only because it shows little accountability to the end-users who were provided with energy services that later ceased, but also because the same mistakes that caused these failures will likely be repeated in the future. The perception of risk in the energy and development sector is already high among potential funders of energy solutions, and the industry’s inability to learn from past failures has been one of the factors slowing progress towards universal access. Hard lessons learned through unsuccessful endeavours live on as anecdotes shared in private, instead of generating public discussion that offers invaluable guidance for the wider sector.
The importance of learning from one’s own mistakes is critical. Indeed, as a famous quote often attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt says, “Learn from the mistakes of others. You will never live long enough to make them all yourself.” This quote has a literal interpretation in energy and development, as companies tend to have short lifespans, since they are attempting something that has failed before, and often providing a misfitting solution or a service that has little demand. The widespread reluctance to talk about failure in the sector propagates this pattern.
Through a series of workshops and interviews with diverse stakeholders, we identified several factors that prevent us from talking about failure. These include:
- Reputational risk, either to oneself or to one’s organisation – the latter was particularly common in the private and not-for-profit sectors
- Competition for funding, since a track record of success gives you better odds of obtaining money
- No obligation to report results
- A lack of honesty
- The celebration of “unproductive success”: For example, projects might achieve their key performance indicators while having no real impact on the ground. An example of this is the large-scale improved cookstove programmes of the 1980s, which succeeded in distributing millions of improved stoves, but failed to reduce deforestation or displace traditional stoves to any extent.
Finally, we found that it is often organisational culture that determines whether failure is embraced, swept under the carpet or punished outright (e.g., by firing those deemed responsible). Hierarchy often plays a role here, especially in academia, where senior academics are more able to talk about failure than their junior colleagues, whose careers may be dependent on building a track record of “success.” This brings us back to the fear of reputational damage, which was the top reason for not talking about failure, according to our study participants.
A Pivotal Moment for Energy Access
The provision of clean energy for all is integral to responding to the climate crisis – and to bringing the many benefits of reliable electricity access to excluded communities around the world. This research highlights a key obstacle that’s standing in the way of universal energy access.
But while the SDGs’ focus on energy and development is not new, the sector continues to make the same mistakes while stubbornly refusing to learn from them. As a result, energy companies and organisations continue to suffer, and – more importantly – so do the people who continue to live without access to electricity and clean cooking fuels and technologies.
It is time to shift our approach. We must ensure that we make the best use of already-scarce funding for energy access, and share learnings from both successful and failed interventions. If we want funding – and access – to increase, we must reach a common understanding that failure can be productive: It can inform innovation and progress, and can create positive change. Sharing our failures, not just our successes, can therefore significantly accelerate progress towards SDG7 – a target that we are currently not on track to meet.
Time is running out. We need things to change, and we need them to change rapidly. This is an urgent call to action for the energy and development sector to share failures and, most importantly, to learn from them. We encourage you to reach out if you have experiences of failed projects you would like to share – you can contact us at I.M.Bisaga@lboro.ac.uk, firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. And we call on funders, policymakers and other stakeholders to collate and share examples of failure in energy and development, with the aim of creating a repository of learnings that can inform the sector’s efforts going forward.
Iwona Bisaga is a Research Associate at the Modern Energy Cooking Services Programme at Loughborough University; Julia Tomei is an Associate Professor at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources; Tash Perros is a PhD candidate at University College London (UCL).
Photo courtesy of Ben Grey.