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. (For the full news article with videos embedded, click here.)
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.
The winners were selected by a panel of five energy sector experts, who also named three additional finalists.
Thousands of remote communities in Myanmar have mini-grids running on diesel generators, which 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 such 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 then can 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 new systems to run safely and reliably.
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.
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. In these countries, wasted food often coexists with malnutrition.
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-scale traders.
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.
“With the help of the prize money we hope to scale our work to other countries, especially in East Africa,” said Solar Freeze founder and chief executive, Dysmus Kisilu.
Kisilu added that Solar Freeze will also use the prize money to train more young people, especially women, in renewable energy technology.
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. Takataka trains and employs survivors of trauma from the 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 its goal of recycling nine tons of plastic a month in Gulu, said Paige Balcom, who co-founded Takataka with Peter Okwoko.
“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.
Global Energy Heroes was funded by the 2020 Global Energy Forum and Mac McQuown.