What is a community needs assessment?

Speeches Shim

Short Answer

Early in the planning stage, project developers need to conduct a community needs assessment. A community needs assessment is a process that helps the mini-grid project developer understand local energy needs, technical expertise and capacity. The design of the assessment will vary depending on the role the community members will play in the project. For example, assessing local technical capacity might not be necessary if community members will not own, operate or maintain the mini-grid.

Components of a Community Needs Assessment
  • Energy Needs
    • How much electricity does the community need?
    • What will customers use the electricity for?
    • When is electricity needed?
    • How are energy needs likely to change over time?
  • Capacity Needs
    • What are the technical, institutional, financial or management-related capacity needs?

A complete community needs assessment, which occurs in the planning phase of the project stages, evaluates energy needs as well as local technical and managerial capacity.

Further Explanation of Key Points

Energy Needs Assessment

Analyzing current and anticipated future energy demand is a critical part of the energy needs assessment. Project developers must understand how much electricity communities need, what they use electricity for and how demand is likely to change over time. A good demand assessment includes the socioe-conomic patterns in a community. The energy needs assessment should also include information about the proximity of the central grid to the project area.

Using data from the energy needs assessment, developers can make sound decisions about whether mini-grids, grid extensions or stand-alone solar home systems would be best for a given community. An energy needs assessment also helps the developer determine the best technology, system size, pricing structure and revenue collection approach. In India, for example, Decentralized Energy Systems of India (DESI Power) used a thorough energy needs assessment to develop a successful project with targeted energy services and a differential tariff structure.

A good energy needs assessment analyzes the community’s anticipated future load profiles, including any plans for energy-intensive economic activities. Then project developers can design and size a system capable of generating more electricity as demand increases. Understanding demand dynamics helps the mini-grid developer set realistic expectations about future electricity supply.

Capacity Needs Assessment

If community members will own, operate and/or collect tariffs for the mini-grid, the developer will need to assess local capacity. Developers should include the local community in an overall capacity needs assessment for the project. Capacity needs assessments help developers identify gaps in technical expertise, management experience and infrastructure that could hinder the construction and operation of a mini-grid project.

Capacity-building needs will vary depending on the community’s role in the project. Some communities only purchase and consume electricity; others may participate actively in the mini-grid’s operations and maintenance or tariff collection. Depending on the project’s ownership model, the developer might need to assess local expertise and capacity in operating mini-grid technology, tariff design and revenue collection, collaboration with stakeholders, transparent business practices and conflict mitigation and resolution.

As part of the capacity needs assessment, developers must determine what communities know about the different ways to use electricity, including end-use appliances and economic activities. Demand for energy often increases when communities understand the full range of benefits. Community capacity building can include education and awareness campaigns.

Community Capacity-building Needs

In any mini-grid project, the community will play an important role. Regardless of ownership model, developers will need to assess at least some aspects of local capacity. Depending on the model, communities might need capacity building in mini-grid technology, tariffs and revenue collection, collaboration with stakeholders, transparent business practices and/or conflict mitigation and resolution.

Putting it into Practice

Conducting Energy Needs Assessments

An energy needs assessment has three important steps:

  1. Establish the minimum amount of energy required to meet current needs.
    • What are the primary uses of energy in the area?
    • How are energy services currently provided?
  2. Understand how energy needs are likely to change over time.
    • What new energy service needs are households, businesses, social services and the public sector likely to have in the future?
  3. Understand how energy needs are likely to change over time.
    • What plans are in place to expand the energy grid?
    • What other energy provision projects are planned?

An example of an energy needs assessments tool is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s D-Lab Assessment Toolkit.

Implementing Education and Awareness Campaigns

Based on the results of the energy and capacity needs assessments, developers may find it useful to educate communities about electricity and the different ways to use it. Communities new to electricity may need safety education, such as how to use electrical appliances safely or wire a home correctly.

Educational campaigns can help local communities appreciate the value of the project and increase their willingness to pay for services. For example, if the needs assessment showed that community members only valued electricity for task lighting and mobile phone charging, developers could conduct educational campaigns about how electricity can improve water pumping and food milling, spur local business development and help improve health and education.

Awareness-raising can also encourage communities to develop complementary programs that promote productive uses of energy to generate income. Productive-use activities require other resources in addition to electricity. To start or expand businesses, entrepreneurs may need raw materials, access to credit, markets for their products or trained laborers. Educating communities about how these resources combine to promote local economic growth can increase interest in energy services and improve economic outcomes once electricity is available.

Relevant Case Studies

Biomass Gasification in India. This case study is an example of a project with community training for project operations, management and tariff collection. DESI Power, a nonprofit organization, is helping communities harness electricity for economic activities. Working closely with local communities, DESI Power installs biomass gasification mini-grid systems and promotes productive uses of energy.


KU Work Group for Community Health and Development (2015). Community Toolbox: Assessing Community Needs and Resources.
This free, online compendium has tools and modules for community engagement teaching, training and technical support.

International Renewable Energy Agency (2012). Capacity Development Needs Diagnostics for Renewable Energy: Tools for Capacity Needs Assessment in Renewable Energy Sector Particularly in the Wind and Solar Sector. Handbook and Toolbox.
This set of tools provides guidance for national and local-level capacity-building to promote renewable energy systems, particularly wind and solar energy.

United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) (2008). Capacity Assessment Methodology Users Guide.
This publication explains UNDP’s approach to capacity development and capacity assessment, including a step-by-step guide to conducting a capacity assessment using UNDP’s “default” Capacity Assessment Framework and Supporting Tool.

Last updated: February 13, 2018

Share This Page