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Large-scale funding for low carbon energy set to launch in 2021?

Dr Conor Snowden, International Development Research Manager in Edinburgh Research Office, writes about the Ayrton Fund, and the opportunities this may offer for highly impactful research on the development of energy systems in low and middle-income countries.

The Ayrton Fund is a commitment by the UK Government to spend £1bn of Official Development Assistance (ODA) funding on research, development and demonstration (RD&D) into clean energy technology and business models for low and middle income countries.  It will run over five years from April 2021.

Originally announced in September 2019 it is styled as a way to “develop and test new technology targeted at tackling climate change in developing countries”.  The commitment will address development challenges in low-carbon energy (supply), low-carbon societies (demand), and smart and flexible energy delivery and storage to meet a range of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), such as Goals 7 and 13.  The fund will form a £1bn ODA programme supported by the UK’s international climate finance (ICF), which will be increased to at least £11.6bn over the same period.  For comparison the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) promised £1.5bn over a similar timeframe.

Areas of Impacts

Whilst no detailed information about the fund has been published this year, the potential themes of the fund are:

  • providing affordable access to electricity for some of the 1 billion people in ODA-eligible countries who are still off the grid, including through innovative solar technology for their homes;
  • enhancing large-scale energy technology to replace polluting diesel generators and ensure clean energy can be stored and not lost;
  • designing clean stoves like electric pressure cookers for some of the 2.7 billion people who still rely on firewood – with the smoke damaging their health as well as the environment;
  • working with energy-intensive industries and governments to achieve industrial decarbonisation;
  • supporting the development of technologies and business models for sustainable cooling – residential air conditioning alone is expected to raise global temperatures by 0.5°C in the years ahead; and
  • designing low-emission and electric vehicles to cut pollution and make transport systems cleaner and greener.

Questions surrounding the fund

Almost as soon as the fund was announced, there was concern within the development community that the fund was an attempt by the UK Government to divert ODA spending from a poverty reduction focus in least developed countries, to low carbon technology innovation which may only benefit those upper middle income countries with the infrastructure and incomes to implement it. There was also concern that, with much of the spend to be concentrated at UK HEIs, the fund was effectively tying aid to LMIC partners with spend at UK universities.  The Government has denied this saying the fund will be open to all nationalities and within ODA rules.

The fund sits alongside, and may even be delivered through GCRF and Newton, and include scaling-up of existing activities, such as Innovate UK’s Energy Catalyst and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s (EPSRC) energy access programme, and new thematic programmes in areas such as solar/biofuels, whole systems, heating/refrigeration, sustainable transport and industrial energy.

The exact size of the Ayrton Fund as well as Newton, GCRF and other ODA funds is likely to be fixed as part of the UK Spending Review happening this autumn and it is not clear when initial calls may occur, but we should assume they will come from early 2021.


If delivered as announced, the Ayrton Fund offers significant opportunities for researchers from across the university to deliver highly impactful research on the development of energy systems in low and middle-income countries.  This will depend on the implementation of the fund in early 2021 and International Development Research Hub in Edinburgh Research Office will monitor it closely and seek to facilitate cross university, interdisciplinary working in this area and will advise academics as we get more information.

To keep up to date with the fund and to be included in initial inter-disciplinary meetings about it then please sign-up for our newsletter by emailing

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Conor Snowden


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