ESRC South Africa energy project wins Newton Fund prize award

A project on community energy supply, jointly delivered by the ESRC, has won the Chair’s Prize in the 2020 Newton Fund prize awards announced today.

The winning project, called Urban transformation in South Africa through co-designing energy services provision pathways, focused on the problems of getting safe and reliable energy supplies to ‘informal’ settlements.

The project was delivered jointly by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the National Research Foundation, South Africa, working with academics from the UK and South Africa, together with private companies and local community groups.

The challenge of energy poverty

In many communities, people rely on burning paraffin, wood or plastic for energy, and where they have electricity it is often through dangerous, unreliable connections. Energy poverty creates health hazards and limits educational and economic opportunity.

Bringing these settlements onto the electricity grid is often difficult due to policy, legal and jurisdiction issues, so the winning project developed new approaches to energy supply using renewables, and new business models involving the local communities.

Mini-grids fill energy gaps

The project showed the potential of new solutions such as solar-powered ‘mini-grids’ run by social enterprises, to plug the gap between state energy provision and no provision at all. In a trial, a community mini-grid provided energy that was not only safer but 40% cheaper than existing sources.

As a result, a larger experimental mini-grid is now being installed in Cape Town with the help of funding from the Global Challenges Research Fund.

Keeping things cool, off the grid

In off-grid communities such as Qando in Cape Town, refrigeration is the single most desired use for electricity. With the additional funding now available from having won the Newton Fund Chair’s Prize, the project partners will be able to continue their work with a new initiative focusing on this need.

The new project, called UMBANE – electricity in the Xhosa language – will establish sustainable businesses running fridges powered by solar mini-grids, not only giving people access to refrigeration also but generating economic activity and employment.

As well as bringing health benefits and empowering local entrepreneurs – mostly female – it will create a bank of learning and data that will be used to demonstrate that the approach can work on a large scale.

Professor Jennifer Rubin, ESRC Executive Chair, said:

This remarkable project not only increases the uptake of renewable energy but has the potential to transform lives in disadvantaged communities. I am delighted to see the project win a Newton Prize – recognising the international team’s achievements so far, and enabling them to continue their important work.

Dr Aldo Stroebel, Executive Director, Strategic Partnerships, NRF, said:

The Newton Fund initiatives provide a significant platform for sustainable and responsible partnerships that are responsive, inclusive, and participatory within the science and policy system. It enables broad and strong engagements in a multilateral environment – and most importantly, fosters excellence and competitiveness.

Further information

  • The Newton Prize offers a total of £1m each year, divided among four winning projects that have previously been enabled by the Newton Fund. The purpose is to further help international research partners to tackle key global challenges such as human health, food security and climate change through science, research and innovation.
  • The ESRC project, Urban Transformation in South Africa Through Co-Designing Energy Services Provision Pathways, won the Chair’s Prize in the Sustainable Cities & Communities category of the 2020 Newton Prize.
  • The project was led by Dr Federico Caprotti, University of Exeter, and Dr Jiska de Groot, University of Cape Town, South Africa. They will go on to lead the new UMBANE initiative funded by the Chair’s Prize, working with solar mini-grid company Zonke Energy, energy and informality consultancy Thrie Energy Collective, and Story Room, a social enterprise.
  • In addition to this award, an AHRC project using local heritage and archaeology to support sustainable development has won the Jordan country prize in the 2020 Newton Fund prize awards announced today.

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