DURBAN – The new solar thermal system perched on the corrugated roof of Deliwe Nobekwa’s small brick home isn’t just a convenience. It’s life changing. For the first time, Nobekwa can take a hot bath with the turn of a faucet.
“I’m living here with three kids. Before I had to boil many kettles of water to have a bath, and it took a lot of electricity,” says Nobekwa, speaking to a small group of visitors huddled in her home.
“It’s been three weeks, and I’ve already saved 90 Rand [$11 USD]. I do not work right now, so this is very important for me,” she says.
Nobekwa lives in Cato Manor, a township just outside the city of Durban, South Africa. She’s also the newest resident of the Cato Manor’s “green street” – a cluster of 30 homes that have received efficiency upgrades, solar water heaters, and rainwater collection systems to help residents of this working-class community reduce energy consumption by up to 50% and prove the value of a small-scale, localized approach to sustainability.
The project, funded by the British High Commission in South Africa and developed by the Green Building Council of South Africa (GBCSA) and the World Green Building Council, was only announced in October. Six weeks later, 30 households have been serviced with solar thermal and efficiency upgrades.
“We didn’t want to do something that would be ready many years from now, or ready in 2050,” says BCSSA Chief Executive Brian Wilkinson, speaking to a crowd of guests gathered for an event in Cato Manor to showcase the project. “ We wanted to do something now.”
Six weeks later, the Green Street is ready to show off to attendees at the COP 17 climate conference in Durban. Proudly greeting the hundred or so guests who’ve come to visit, residents cheer and wave as a delegation of folks from around the world walk into their community to tour the homes.
In celebration of the project, the residents of Cato Manor have named the street “Isimosezulu [climate] COP17 Place.”
But this is not just a one-off gimmick for the climate conference. The partnering organizations have raised additional government funding from the British and Australian governments to support the retrofit of 160,000 new houses in South Africa like the ones in Cato Manor.
The projects will support emissions reductions under the Clean Development Mechanism, a program that helps developed countries reduce emissions through projects in less-developed countries.
In the U.S., the term “green building” is usually associated with large commercial development. But in South Africa, they’re trying to bring it down to the local level.
“Standards and ratings have been written with large buildings in mind,” said Brian Wilkinson, CEO of the Green Building Council of South Africa. “We want to support this kind of sustainable development that can have the biggest impact in the shortest amount of time, while also dramatically improving quality of life.”
The GBCSA is working to create new standards that take job creation, training and local economic impact in under-served communities into account, said Wilkinson. Each retrofit cost roughly $3,800 (R 30,000) and was designed to “maximize employment” of local residents to make the retrofits, install the solar systems and work on the gardens planted along the Green Street.
When he opened the climate talks last week, South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma reiterated the call for similar programs, saying “we also feel strongly that as an African Conference of the Parties, the COP 17 outcome must recognize that solving the climate problem cannot be separated from the struggle to eradicate poverty.”
With negotiators at the COP 17 conference working on developing a Green Fund that could deploy $100 billion in public and private funds by 2020, this project is a stark reminder of the value of such a mechanism to reduce emissions and improve quality of life.
Australia’s High Commissioner Ann Harrap, who came to Cato Manor to see the type of project her government is assisting, agrees:
“I’m a diplomat. And generally speaking, we don’t get to always see what happens on the ground level. I’m so amazed to see this work. Oh, and by the way, our Fast Start funding [the initial targets leading into the Green Fund] is on target and on time.”