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Disruptive Energy for UK and South African Communities workshop

Community-owned solar farm in Plymouth, UK

Dr Iwona Bisaga represented ISULabaNtu at the UKRI-funded workshop organised by the University of Exeter in Plymouth on March 13th-14th. The workshop built on a 2016-19 Newton Fund project on energy access in informal settlements in South Africa.

The event's aim was to engage with various UK and South Africa-based stakeholders interested in energy access and provision to informal settlement communities in South Africa, and those representing community-focused and off-grid energy solutions in the UK. It was organised as part of a larger multi-year project on energy access in South African informal settlements and communities, and has involved both South African and UK-based researchers. The discussion revolved around disruption in the ways energy can be delivered to communities, particularly those which do not benefit from the grid as well as those who are energy poor, as is the case in the Plymouth area, for example. The Plymouth Energy Community organised a visit to their Ernesettle community-owned solar farm which is an example of community-led efforts to provide clean, affordable power to households in the Plymouth area, offering opportunities of contributing to bottom-up initiatives serving the energy poor and others in the local community.

Workshop participants at the Ernesettle community-owned solar farm.

Representatives from Sustainable Energy Africa (SEA) presented on the key energy access challenges facing South Africa, particularly given the recent regular load shedding among the grid-connected households and the limitations regarding connecting informal settlements to the network. Slumdwellers International (SDI) and Community Organisation Resource Centre (CORC) talked about their work within informal settlements in West Cape, including the mapping and data collection efforts which provide an evidence base used by the communities to lobby the local governments and demonstrated, in a credible way, the need for infrastructure provision (not only energy access but also access to other basic services). City of Johannesburg representatives also shared their perspective on informal settlements service provision and the challenges they are faced with on a daily basis, including high costs of service extension and maintenance, and the affordability and willingness to pay by informal settlement dwellers.

Several participants mentioned and referred to the iShack Project led by the Sustainability Institute Innovation Lab at Stellenbosch University. It's a social enterprise which demonstrates how incremental solar energy services can be provided, at scale, to under-serviced communities in South Africa through a viable and financially sustainable public-private business model.

Iwona presented a case study of Havelock where the lack of access to reliable, safe electricity poses fire and health hazards, and where distributed (solar) energy solutions could have a potential to change things for the better. It was a contrast to the Enkanini and Siqalo settlements where iShack have their presence.

The workshop concluded with reflections on what energy poverty is, what it means to those affected, both in the context of the UK and South Africa, and how disruptive approaches can address it thus improving energy security and well-being of households, and contributing to the local socio-economic development.

You can read more about the ESRC-NSF Urban Transformations in South Africa URBATRANS project here. If you're interested in the work of the Plymouth Energy Community, you can find their website here.

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