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Precourt Institute announces winners of first Global Energy Heroes competition

By Mark Golden

Three community-based sustainability organizations have won the first Global Energy Heroes prizes from Stanford University’s Precourt Institute for Energy. The competitive prizes drew submissions from 27 countries across six continents.

Organizations led by people aged 18 to 30 years old were eligible to enter, which required submission of a short video about the their work. Even though many organizations in advanced economies entered, the three winners work in developing economies. Mee Panyar is helping remote communities in Myanmar upgrade their miniature electric grids, replacing costly diesel generators with solar power. Solar Freeze provides solar-powered refrigerated storage and transportation of produce to small-scale farmers in Kenya. Takataka Plastics is recycling low-value plastic waste in Uganda into high-demand construction materials. Each organization gets $20,000 to advance their enterprise and a trip to Stanford for the Global Energy Forum. The conference was scheduled for this month, but postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This year’s winners highlight the power that we have to tackle the immense challenge of energy and sustainability. The organizations who submitted entries are making direct, meaningful improvements in our communities,” said Kailash Raman, a Stanford junior majoring in chemical engineering. Raman and Sebastian Schneider, a PhD candidate in chemistry, spearheaded the competition as co-presidents of the Stanford Energy Club, a student organization.

“Though focusing on the specific needs of their communities, many of the teams developed solutions that hold the potential to be widely implemented across the globe,” said Schneider.

The winners were selected by a panel of five energy sector experts, who also named three additional finalists.

Video entry from Mee Panyar

Solar-diesel swap

Thousands of remote communities in Myanmar have mini-grids running on diesel generators. For the amount of electricity they produce, these systems emit a lot of greenhouse gases and damage local air quality. They are also expensive to operate, so they supply electricity only a few hours a day.

Mee Panyar helps these communities replace their diesel generators with affordable solar panels and batteries, or add solar power while keeping the diesel generators as a secondary power source. The community is then able to access electricity 24 hours a day for the first time. On average, the cost of electricity is cut in half, according to Mee Panyar. The organization also trains community members to operate and maintain their upgraded systems to run more safely and reliably. The trained technicians are prepared and supported to operate the system, improving overall sustainability of the project.

“When you can support communities in realizing their own potential and take this into their own hands, that’s where you see the most creative solutions,” said founder and managing director Natasha Allen.  “The communities that we work with know better than we do what they actually want and need based on their resources.”

Mee Panyar is expanding to more areas in Myanmar and other countries in the region, said Sierra Fan, the organization’s director of finance and operations. It will use the prize money to increase the scale of their activities and improve their training materials, said Fan.

Video entry from Solar Freeze. (Credit: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation)

Affordable refrigeration

Family farms in developing economies often lack the electric power and capital to own and operate cold storage for their produce. As a result, millions of farmers see the fruit of their labor go unsold or degrade in value every year. During harvest season a market can become oversupplied, sending prices so low that they do not even cover harvest and transportation costs. In these same regions of the world, wasted food often coexists with malnutrition. Potential income, 45 percent of crops and scarce resources like fresh water used to grow the food are squandered.

In Kenya, smallholder farmers can now hire mobile, solar-powered cold storage rooms and refrigerated trucking from Solar Freeze without the capital expense, a grid connection or even internet access. Solar Freeze delivers produce that is fresher and less expensive to consumers and small traders. It even distributes milk directly to consumers from solar-powered vending machines.

Solar Freeze has provided its services to thousands of farmers, mostly women. The organization also has trained more than 100 Kenyan youth in the operation, maintenance and repair of solar power equipment and climate-friendly agriculture.

The Global Energy Heroes prize “allows us and our work to be seen not only in Kenya, but across the world,” said Solar Freeze founder and chief executive, Dysmus Kisilu. “With the help of the prize money we hope to scale our work to other countries, especially in East Africa.”

After studying renewable energy at the University of California-Davis, Kisilu returned to his grandmother’s small farm where he grew up to apply his education to the problems of Kenyan farmers. He said Solar Freeze will use the prize money to train more young people, especially women, in renewable energy technology.

Video entry from Takataka Plastics

Turning plastic waste into products

Like many small cities in developing countries, Gulu, Uganda has no ability to recycle plastic soda and water bottles. The bottles have a very low recycling value, so transporting them six hours to the nearest recycling plant is economically unfeasible. The plastic in Gulu is burned, which produces carbon dioxide and other pollution, or buried, which leaches chemicals that can harm water supplies, or just littered across streets and fields.

In 2019, Takataka Plastics opened a small plastic collection center in Gulu and built prototype machines that sort, shred and melt the plastic, which is then molded into construction materials. Takataka has no problem selling its low-cost products, which now include face shields for healthcare workers treating patients with COVID-19. They make their machines from parts produced in Uganda. Takataka trains and employs survivors of trauma from the decades-old civil war in northern Uganda to collect and recycle the plastic safely.

The organization will use the Global Energy Heroes prize money to build more machines, hire an R&D engineer and ultimately reach their goal of recycling nine tons of plastic a month in Gulu, said Paige Balcom, who co-founded Takataka with Peter Okwoko.

Excerpts of interviews with the winners and the Stanford students who
ran the competition. (Credit: Mark Golden)

“Also, this will introduce us to a larger network of individuals with whom we can share the kinds of solutions we are working on and get ideas on how to improve them,” said Okwoko, who has been working to improve the environment in Gulu for six years.

Three other finalists are also being honored for their work: Reeddi in Toronto, Ontario; Himalayan Innovations in Nepal; and Kaze Green Economy in Burundi.

The judges of the competition were Tom Kalil of Schmidt Futures, Doug Kimmelman of Energy Capital Partners, Dawn Lippert of Elemental Excelerator, Nicole Systrom of Sutro Energy Group, and Jane Woodward of MAP Energy and Stanford University.

Global Energy Heroes was funded by the 2020 Global Energy Forum and Mac McQuown.