Doctoral research project keeps lights on at schools

[Article by Me S Mulder, Corporate Communications and Marketing]

Stellenbosch University (SU) awarded a PhD to Jason Avron Samuels for his phenomenal research that led to huge electricity cost savings at schools in Stellenbosch and Paarl and the establishment of a spin-off company, GreenX Engineering (GXE).

Samuels hails from Cloetesville in Stellenbosch, and received his doctoral degree in electrical engineering at a physical graduation ceremony in the SU Konservatorium in Stellenbosch on Wednesday 15 December 2021.

Samuels, who is also the managing director of GreenX Engineering, received media attention when GreenX equipped Cloetesville Primary School in Stellenbosch with energy-saving technology causing it to be the first school in South Africa to receive an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC). The school received an A rating for electrical consumption of 17 kWh per m².

Being an entrepreneur and PhD graduate is a great feat for Samuels. He worked tirelessly for the last three years on his research project entitled “Electrical energy in schools with a focus on behavioural and efficiency interventions”.

“This PhD concluded my ten-year journey at Stellenbosch, which started with my undergraduate studies in 2011. It feels amazing to graduate! It is also a great time to celebrate with those who helped me through the long journey,” he said.

The idea of the research topic came from SU’s Prof Thinus Booysen, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, who encouraged Samuels to conduct research on energy use at schools. Samuels was under the supervision of Prof Booysen and Prof Saartjie Grobbelaar, an associate professor in the Department of Industrial Engineering.

Samuels, Booysen and Grobbelaar, now operate and aim to build GreenX Engineering with the help of Innovus, a division of SU that is responsible for technology transfer, entrepreneurial support and development, and innovation. Booysen and Grobbelaar are both non-executive directors of GreenX Engineering.

Samuels’ research topic aligned with his goal to help people and make an impact on communities; especially schools with limited financial resources.

During his research, he realised that many schools are facing infrastructure and resource limitations and budgetary pressures, which create a need for schools to reduce their electricity usage, save money and at the same time, get more in line with effective green technologies.

His research managed to achieve just that. By piloting his research assumptions, he proved that behavioural and efficiency intervention can result in an energy reduction of 11 to 14% and an increase in lighting efficiency of 21 to 39% at schools. Subsequently, this effective reduction resulted in reduced electricity costs at schools, as well as lowering the carbon footprint, creating a more green-friendly environment.

Implementation of the project

To get these results, they firstly installed smart energy meters at schools. The first phase is necessary to understand the energy usage.

“We analyse the data produced by the smart meters and see where, when and how much electricity was used on the school premises,” said Samuels.

“Then, after the data audit, we introduce interventions to reduce energy usage. These interventions entail replacing high-power fluorescent lights with light-emitting diode (LED) lights, which have lower power consumption, a high power factor and better light quality.”

Expanding and growth

The success of the project, which was funded by SU’s Social Impact Funding Committee, has attracted various stakeholders and other funders, including the Western Cape Education Department (WCED).

Other stakeholders include students, school principals and school staff, LED light suppliers and installers, as well as other funders such as MTN, ESKOM and Shoprite. With the project expanding, Samuels and his partners established GreenX.

“The aim of establishing GreenX is to build capacity to roll out the project to more schools,” said Samuels.

Currently, the WCED wants GreenX to implement the project at another 100 schools in the Western Cape starting early 2022.

Reflecting on the successes and growth of the project, Samuels said, “I definitely did not plan any of these achievements and growth of my research project, but it was a team effort and I am grateful for all of the people involved.”

“Retrospectively, I think I got involved with engineering to help people by using my skills. Now I get to help people reduce their energy usage, which impacts on their wallets and the environment in a good way.”

The future shines bright for Samuels. He is considering pursuing postdoctoral studies and developing GreenX to reach the rest of the country.

Photograph: ​Stellenbosch University (SU) awarded a PhD to Jason Avron Samuels.