By Martin Wright
The scale and reach of sustainable energy has changed dramatically since the Ashden Awards were founded, 12 years ago. Martin Wright reports from Goma.
At first glance, you could easily mistake Lake Kivu for one of the world's tourist treasures. Its turquoise shimmer sets off the vivid green of the surrounding hills - one side in Rwanda, the other in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). To the north loom the Virunga Mountains, still partly covered in forest, home to the fabled 'gorillas in the mist'. One day, perhaps, all this will indeed be a holiday hotspot. Today, it's a hotspot of a different sort: a sporadic but vicious war raging between a tangle of rival militias. It's fuelled by a combination of long-running communal strife, mainly between Hutus and Tutsis, and a very 21st-century battle for control of the region's rich resources: timber, diamonds, coltan and more.
The gorillas have survived, so far: rebel groups find they are more valuable alive than dead, raking in money from a trickle of wildlife-loving visitors. But their future is precarious, as their habitat is cleared by illegal charcoal burners. Nearly half a million people in the capital Goma depend on charcoal as cooking fuel. And 80% of this comes from the forests which are, at least nominally, in protected areas.
Now, a small WWF team inspired by local activist Consolee Kavira has come up with a partial solution: a simple cookstove design, produced by local artisans, which cuts charcoal consumption by over half. Looking a little like a clay flowerpot wrapped in a thin metal sleeve, it's great at drawing in air to keep the heat concentrated on the cooking pot. The charcoal burns cleanly, and at just the right temperature. It's a big improvement on the open hearth-style stoves which were previously commonplace in Goma. As one user, Helene Batachoka, told me: "The old stove would cook too fiercely, so the food ended up tasting of smoke. This one is so much better."
The stoves sell for $5-$10, and pay for themselves in as little as two weeks. In 2012 alone, that meant Goma's residents saved over $6 million. Total production amounts to over 43,000 stoves, and now WWF - DRC is working with local farmers to plant fast-growing stands of trees, especially selected for charcoal making. With 4,000 hectares already planted, this holds out the prospect that an increasing amount of Goma's cooking fuel needs could, within a few years, be met from a sustainable source - winning WWF - DRC a 2013 Ashden Award for Sustainable Energy.
It also shows just how much has changed since the Ashden Awards, which celebrate practical, local energy solutions that cut carbon, protect the environment and improve people's lives, were founded back in 2001. The first prize winner was over the border in Rwanda, where the Kigali Institute for Science and Technology had developed a woodsaving bread oven. At the time of winning barely 100 had been distributed. Since then, sustainable energy has gone to scale - as epitomised by another of this year's winners, SolarAid, which has sold a cool 400,000 PV lanterns since 2010 alone.
Finding new ways of making sustainable energy affordable has been key to its rapid spread. Micro credit plays a part, but other financial mechanisms have a role too, including carbon finance. Impact Carbon, another 2013 winner, uses it to help stove and water filter entrepreneurs expand at an impressive rate. Uganda's Ugastove company, for example, has seen its sales rise from 200 a month in 2007 to over 10,000 this year.
If Impact Carbon is one example of meeting an age-old human need with 21st-century finance, Azuri is another. This UK-based start-up uses scratchcards to help Kenya's poorer households afford a solar home system, providing electric light and mobile charging. It's a novel way of allowing people to 'pay as you go' for solar. Each system has a controller with a keypad to activate it. It can only be done via a code which the customer receives by texting Azuri with a number hidden on the scratchcard. It owes its success to the quickfire spread of mobile phones - another feature of the last 12 years. For Ashden winners like Azuri and Solar Aid, it's a double win: mobiles need little power to charge, and even simple solar lanterns now include a chargepoint, so increasing their appeal. And in turn, mobiles offer new ways of promoting - and paying for - sustainable energy.
Technological innovations like these mean that a watt generated in 2013 now packs a much bigger punch than when the Awards began. It's a similar story with light. Bright, powerful LEDs are increasingly taking over from compact fluorescents, providing ample illumination for less than half the power. Innovation is playing an increasing role in the UK, too, spurred by growing concerns over rising energy bills. Monodraught, another 2013 Ashden Award winner, is pioneering a new cooling system which uses the latest phase-change material technologies to save up to 90% of the power used by conventional air conditioning.
One common theme running through both the international and UK Awards from the start has been that of energy security. While apocalyptic visions of resource wars which were common in the wake of 9/11 have faded a little, uncertainty over reliability and price of supplies remains a live issue. As 2013 Cornish winners, WREN, ask: "Where would you prefer your energy to come from? Your own rooftops, local farmers and businesses? Or Russia and Qatar?" Energy security is particularly important for island communities, who are often dependent on costly imports of diesel. In response, Ashden has partnered with the World Bank to set up a new Small Island Developing States Award. This year's winners include Cape Verde's Cabeolica, which is replacing diesel with one abundant local resource in no danger of running out: wind.
Meanwhile, the simplest response to an energy shortfall is not to use it at all. UK Award winner National Energy Action has trained over 16,000 people to become energy efficiency experts, adept at cutting costs as well as carbon. And one of this year's (European) Travel Award winners, Sustrans, is tempting people away from cars, an energy-intensive form of transport, onto bicycles, by linking long distance cycle routes with schools, hospitals and town centres. As such, it's an excellent example of sustainable energy brought home.
As Ashden's Founder Director, Sarah Butler- Sloss, puts it: "Some say sustainable energy is a luxury we can't afford. But in truth, it's a huge opportunity. From Cornwall to Cape Verde, our 2013 finalists are showing that what's good for the planet is also good for people, good for business, and good for economies, too."
Martin Wright is Founding Editor of Green Futures and a Visiting Judge for the Ashden Awards.