Decision aiding in off-grid electrification projects: the role of uncertainty acknowledgement and objectives alignment

Doctoral Thesis


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University of Cape Town

Most completed South African off-grid electrification projects have failed to contribute significantly to the sustainable development of the communities they supply. The hypothesis of this research is that the root causes of these failures can often be found in the pre-implementation decision making (planning) processes, specifically in three areas: 1. Decision aiding approaches and tools, aimed at supporting the decision making process, are either not used or do not support high quality decisions. 2. Uncertainties that can impact the project negatively are often not acknowledged (identified) initially, and can therefore not be addressed proactively. 3. The primary project objectives often do not align with sustainable development objectives, which mean that even if all the project objectives are achieved (i.e. a successful project) the project still does not contribute to sustainable development. The process of validating this hypothesis results in several outputs aimed at improving the contribution of future off-grid electrification projects to sustainable development: A framework of primary energisation objectives for sustainable development is developed, which defines what the outcomes of a successful off-grid electrification project should be. High quality decision making is defined, and a framework of decision aiding characteristics that support high quality decision making is developed against which decision aiding approaches and tools can be evaluated. The concept of soft and hard uncertainties is introduced, and it is shown that most of the social and institutional unacknowledged uncertainties in South African off-grid projects are hard. Hard uncertainties are impossible to represent probabilistically, and are difficult to include in traditional single-dimensional (mostly cost-based) decision aiding approaches and tools. A degree of surprise tool, based on Shackle's measure of a decision maker's degree of surprise at a future outcome becoming reality, is developed to act as an example of how hard uncertainty can be acknowledged in the decision making process. p14 - Abstract Soft uncertainty in the decision process is quantified for two examples: renewable energy system sizing, where an adequacy confidence index is proposed, and renewable energy resource estimation, where the accuracy and applicability of RETScreen and Homer within a South African climatic context are analysed. Finally, the above outputs are integrated into an existing decision aiding process and applied in order to demonstrate the value of decision aiding which includes uncertainty acknowledgement and objectives alignment. The applicability of the results of this research is not limited to off-grid electrification, and can be of value within any developmental project aligned with sustainable development, especially where social and institutional uncertainties are prevalent.