A $4.8 million grant was awarded to UNC by the National Science Foundation to help research ways to alleviate energy poverty in Southern Africa.

The project is an NSF Partnership for International Research and Education, or PIRE, a program that promotes international collaboration among scientists to address complex, real-world problems.

The five-year grant is titled “Confronting Energy Poverty: Building an Interdisciplinary Evidence Base, Network, and Capacity for Transformative Change.”

The project is led by associate professor of UNC’s Public Policy department Pam Jagger.

“Energy poverty is basically a situation where people are lacking access to modern and clean energy services, so that could mean people are living without electricity, and there are roughly one in five people globally that don’t have any access or at least regular access to electricity. It also applies to places where people don’t have access to clean and or affordable energy for cooking and heating,” said Jagger.

Jagger says she has been working in Sub-Saharan Africa for roughly the past 20 years, where an estimated 620 million people lack access to electricity and 730 million use solid biomass and inefficient stoves as their primary source of cooking energy.

The program will provide training and research opportunities for 70 undergraduates and graduate students across disciplines including public policy, geography, sociology, forestry and environmental science and engineering.

Jagger says a main emphasis of the grant is interdisciplinary training that brings together not only social and natural scientists but other expertise as well, which is why UNC has partnered with the Department of Civil Construction and Environmental Engineering at NC State as well as universities in Africa. Undergraduate and graduate students along with faculty participating in the research will focus on energy poverty dynamics, and the impacts of a wide range of energy poverty interventions on Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

To Jagger, it’s not just important to research how to provide efficient energy but to be able to also provide sustainable energy that’s not reliant on fossil fuels.

“We know that we have between 3 and 4 billion people globally, so that’s almost half of the global population that are relying on things like firewood, coal, charcoal and animal waste to provide all of their energy for cooking and heating,” said Jagger. “But I think we have to keep in mind that energy production is a main contributor to global climate change, so you know we have over half of the world that’s living in energy poverty, if we were to bring everybody, you know lift everybody out of poverty, the generation of that energy, unless it’s done with some careful thought to what is sustainable, could have very dire consequences for the planet. So, I think there has to be a really strong emphasis on sustainable solutions.”

In addition to participation in field research, training opportunities will include research practicums with population and environment faculty, internships at RTI International and specialized undergraduate and graduate courses in energy poverty.