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Working toward energy equity for all

Children in Myanmar hold a d.light solar panel and lantern. (photo

Since 2012, economic development has provided new access to electricity for about 100 million people globally each year. Despite this progress, about a billion people still live without electricity service, which is an essential component of higher living standards. Further, around 3 billion people cook indoors with open fires fueled by kerosene, wood, animal dung, crop waste or coal. These cooking practices result in almost 4 million premature deaths annually.

Access to clean, affordable and secure energy services improves productivity, education and health. It empowers populations and reduces poverty. Energy development researchers at Stanford think that facilitating positive social change on a large scale should be co-designed with the benefiting communities and on-the-ground partners. For example, Prof. Rishee Jain in the Urban Informatics Lab collaborates with the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay to assess potential energy systems for and the human burdens of redesigning informal settlements in Mumbai. Stanford teams partner with organizations in countries around the world to work toward Energy Equity for All.

Stanford-related entrepreneurs have launched many real-world, impact-driven ventures to improve energy access and quality of life. Founded in 2006 by Ned Tozun, '02, MBA '07, d.light Solar offers solar-powered battery lanterns to replace dangerous, low-quality lighting from kerosene lamps. It has grown into one of the largest providers of off-grid, solar energy solutions in the world. In 2010, Lesley Marincola, '08, MS '09, launched Angaza, which provides pay-as-you-go financing to bring energy services and other products to people in emerging markets. Shyft Power Systems, started by current doctoral candidate Ugwem I. Eneyo, MS '16, and Cole Stites-Clayton, BS '14, MS'15, works to bring quality electricity management to customers in West Africa using distributed energy resources and Internet of Things technology. Safi Analytics brings efficiency insight to factories in East Africa to improve productivity while saving energy. Lauren Dunford, '09, MBA '18, and Weston McBride, '09, co-founded Safi in 2017.

Tanzanian teacher and farmer Goodluck gifted a rooster to Kukua Labs
co-founder Nick Azpiroz. Goodluck helped test Kukua's incubator.
(Image credit: Amy King)

Focus area: Energy, agriculture and food loss

Some teams at Stanford work to address energy issues in agriculture, which employs more than one-third of the world’s population. Increasing the availability of high-value and high-nutrition products can be life changing. The Center on Food Security & the Environment designs new approaches to solving food security’s global challenges of hunger, poverty and environmental degradation, including impacts of converting of food crops to energy crops. Kukua Labs has created a low-cost, solar-powered egg incubator to help increase the income of farmers and provision of protein in East Africa. Kukua was founded by Nick Azpiroz, ’14, MS ’17, Amy King, ’16, MS ’17, and Eric Brubaker, PhD ’21.

With many efforts to boost food production, Stanford also focuses efforts on food loss. Globally, a fourth of all food produced is wasted before reaching a consumer. The FEED Collaborative is an academic program in sustainable food system education and innovation within Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences. In regions of the world without adequate energy and infrastructure, millions of farmers see the fruit of their labor go unsold or degrade for a number of reasons. For example, during harvest season a market can become oversupplied, sending prices so low that they do not even cover harvest and transportation costs. For harvested crops, low product quality often gets rejected by middlemen buyers, and climate conditions can degrade or spoil a harvest. In these same regions of the world, wasted food often coexists with malnutrition. Potential income and nutrition along with scarce resources like the fresh water and energy that were used to grow the food, are squandered.

Project spotlight: Suryodaya

In January 2016, Stanford doctoral students in Materials Science & Engineering, Michael Machala, PhD '17, and Andrey Poletayev, PhD '19, teamed up with other Stanford students in the Precourt Institute for Energy’s course Energy Transformation Collaborative, (now Stanford Energy Ventures), to understand the causes of food loss and imagine solutions with the potential to scale. The team chose to focus on India, one of the most productive agriculture zones in the world and also a region with significant food loss.

More than half of India’s 100 million smallholder farming families live below the poverty line. These families bear the brunt of risk and losses in disjointed and inefficient supply chains. Despite being one of the largest global producers of food, India also houses the largest malnourished population—191 million people—while food goes to waste and vital income is lost.

With energy resources engineering professor Sally Benson as faculty advisor, Machala and Poletayev spent over two years researching food loss and supply chains in India in collaboration with the India-based Deshpande Foundation and Reliance Foundation. They made multiple field visits with other students to follow food from farm to market, interviewing different people in the supply chain—from farmers to market buyers to government officials to street vendors and exporters. Through need-finding, co-creating, and prototyping with farming communities, the Precourt team created Suryodaya (meaning “Sunrise” in Kannada) and began focusing on food preservation near the farm to boost farmer income.

Frederick Tan and Molly Dicke speak with a chili marketer in the Hubli
region of Karnataka, India for the Mechanical Engineering Design course.
(photo credit: Michael Machala)

Drying and cooling are two of the most common forms of food preservation, and both require large amounts of energy, especially drying. For cooling, many farms try to time harvests or transportation during cooler times of the day because most do not have access to large-scale refrigeration. For drying, farmers often place harvests on the ground under open sun and may hire day laborers to manage the drying process. Depending on the crop and time of year, drying can take weeks. If not well controlled, open-sun drying can degrade nutrient content, flavor and color, and lead to complete spoilage from fungal infections in high humidity or rain. Commercially available heat-pump dryers require more electric power and capital investment than is available to almost all family-owned farms.

Suryodaya has worked with courses like Mechanical Engineering Design - Integrating Context with Engineering and Stanford Energy Ventures and at campus locations like The Stanford O'Donohue Family Farm to create affordable cooling and drying systems that work well with India’s small-farm business models. After Frederick Tan, '18, joined the team, Suryodaya developed and began testing a high-performance, affordable solar drying system for farmers called the Advanced Adaptable Agricultural System. For red chili, one of India's largest spice crops, the system can reduce drying time from two or three weeks to three or four days. This improves chili quality and reduces spoilage to boost farm income and lower risk. With an India-based team in Hubli, Karnataka, Suryodaya is field testing the system in India’s chili growing belt. Suryodaya won an Innovation Transfer grant from Stanford’s TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy and a Realizing Environmental Innovation Program grant from Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

The Advanced Adaptable Agricultural System could work well beyond India, because the need for effective and affordable drying of agricultural products is not confined to the subcontinent. Around one third of food in the world is produced by smallholder farmers, who work on plots of land less than two hectares. These families constitute an estimated 2 billion people.