Can the expansion of renewable energy technologies cause violent conflicts or prevent them?

renewable energy technologies

There is a global effort to limit the effects of climate change by transitioning from fossil-fuel based energy to zero carbon by 2050. Aside from limiting pollution and lowering CO2 emissions, several socio-economic benefits have also been observed from expansion of renewable energy technologies (RETs).

At the macro-level, RETs boost GDP growth from rising investments and the creation of new industries. At the micro-level, growing energy demands are met, new jobs are created, and poverty is alleviated.[1] Furthermore, when these factors converge they help stimulate and ensure political stability that can decrease the likelihood for violent conflicts. But what aboutthe opposite relationship: can the expansion of RETs cause violent conflicts?

Transition to renewable energy

Sub-Saharan Africa has a massive energy need: about 600 million people lack access to electricity.[2]  To solve the region’s energy problems, two different implementation approaches dominate the transition to renewable energy: (a) a top-down utility model delivered mostly by governments, and (b) a bottom-up communal model offered by non-governmental organizations and private firms.

The utility model embraces traditional on-grid energy distribution, while the communal model favors off-grid access to electricity through household or mini-grid systems with  little or no government intervention.

Large hydropower plants connected to national grids is the most common top-down approach to supply electricity for Africans.  While Africa’s hydropower capacity has slowly grown over the past 16 years—from 20GW to 26GW—the region has harnessed less than 10 percent of its hydropower potential.[3]However, the on-grid expansion of RETs face three well-known challenges.

First, weak institutions and corruption often stall renewable energy programs. Recently, South Africa’s ambitious plan to build 96 privately owned renewable-energy plants has been derailed by fossil-fuel industries that seek to protect their own interests through political interference.[4]

Second, climate change and competing demands for water have led to a rise in tensions between countries sharing water basins and rivers.[5]  The ongoing construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile River has increased political tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia, as Egypt fears that filling the dam’s reservoir will destroy farmlands and worsen water shortages that could affect more than 90 million people.[6]

Finally, sub-Saharan African governments are not efficient energy providers. The poor expansion of centralized telephone services is a prime example. In 1990, about 5 million people had fixed telephone subscriptions. By 2001, the number of subscriptions grew to 9 million—roughly 1.3% of the total population at the time. By contrast, cellphone subscriptions, which are normally privately operated grew from 7 million to 17 million during the same period of time.

In contrast to on-grid RETs, the purchase by households and individuals of solar photovoltaic (PV) systems is a bottom-up approach to electrifying Africa. While only a stop-gap-measure, solar PVs can improve the lives of millions, particularly in rural areas. For instance, medium-size solar home systems can power-up several household devices such as small refrigerators, televisions, lamps, USB charging, and replace diesel generators.[7]

Beyond the household, off-grid solar systems can provide electricity needs to schools, health clinics and farms. Smallholder farmers can improve productivity by using solar-powered milking machines, electric fences, egg-incubators, and water pumps for livestock and irrigation. Moreover, the use of off-grid solar PV systems can provide for a range of energy needs at a cheaper price, freeing income to be used towards other products and services. It comes as no surprise that off-grid solar PV systems have rapidly increased over last seven years.

While expansion renewable energy technologies can provide many benefits, such growth is not without risks. In 2011, a rise in biofuel production from corn, soybeans and sugar cane was condemned for arguably increasing food price volatility, which was associated with food-related protests and riots in more than 30 countries. Similarly, the construction of hydropower dams has been under scrutiny for displacing poor rural farmers and increasing tensions between pastoral communities in the Horn of Africa.

Theoretical pathways

First, there is atheoretical pathway betweenon-grid hydropower energy and communal violence. While there are well founded concerns about large scale top-down projects prompting rentier-behavior that could lead to a new “resource curse,” there are other unexplored causal path towards violent events.

Largehydropower plants often alter the ecosystems around them, impacting the livelihoodsof pastoral communities. Often, these communities in Africa are thought to become the first casualties of dam constructions given their strong dependence on changing ecosystems for their livelihoods.

For instance, whendownstream river flows are altered they decrease water spots and available grazing land to feed livestock, which in turn, increasing tensions over these resources among communities. The scarcity of these resources often forces pastoralists to migrate closer to waterlogged areas to access feed and water, making farmlands and water deposits common settings for violent clashes.

A second theoretical pathway suggests a link between off-grid solar PV energy and conflict prevention. There are three main observed advantages for bypassing the state centric utility model. First, decentralized implementation and management reduce the risk of falling prey to “grabber friendly” institutions. Second, decentralized private and community models support community/individual self-sufficiency and empowers local residents. Finally, decentralized energy services increase disposable income for millions of people in rural areas.[8]

Poverty is one of the most robust findings in the conflict literature as a key root cause for social unrest.[9] Therefore, it is safe to reason that poverty alleviation has the potential to have the opposite effect: prevent conflict. However, there is little empirical evidence to suggest that solar PV systems are in fact alleviating poverty in regions like sub-Saharan Africa. Many of these policy-recommendations are often extrapolated by experiences from developed economies such as Japan, Germany, and the United States that may not be apt for sub-Saharan Africa.

Going forward

It has been argued that energy access is essential to ensure that all sustainable development goals succeed: energy is the “golden thread” connecting growth, equity, and sustainability.[10] For this to take place, sub-Saharan governments should embrace a mixed approach to electrifying Africa. On the one hand, governments need to update their grid network and provide more efficient services. Not only will this expand the access to more households, but it will also reduce electricity theft in the region.

On the other hand, governments need to embrace the expansion of off-grid appliances, mini-grids and hybrid grids. Not only will this expand access to electricity for millions, but it can also alleviate poverty, which in turn, can lead to a more peaceful and prosperous region.


[1] For a comprehensive list of benefits at visit:

[2] World Bank Indicators, 2016.

[3] IRENA, 2017

[4]Joubert, 2016.

[5]Conway, 2017

[6]Mulat&Moges, 2014; Maasho, 2017

[7]Harrison & Hogarth, 2016.

[8]Africa Progress Panel, 2015

[9]Blattman& Miguel, 2010

[10]Africa Progress Panel, 2015

Alfonso Sánchez

Alfonso Sánchez

Alfonso Sánchez forma parte del Departamento de Estudios Internacionales de la Universidad Loyola Andalucía.

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