Viewing entries tagged
energy

All Wrapped Up

All Wrapped Up

THE VOICE IN MY HEAD

I have always felt the calling of Mother Nature. It has never been particularly strong, but it has always been present. As I grew up, perhaps I had pushed it aside to follow in the dreams of my parents, who stressed a life of financial stability and personal growth. After the hardships they faced growing up, they wanted to ensure that I would not endure the same struggles and thrive in modern society.

Only recently have I realized the loss of focus on my own goal.

When I first declared electrical engineering, I was never truly set on becoming an engineer. Yes, I enjoyed the intellectual stimulation and the practical and theoretical mix of work, but something was missing. I knew what I wanted to do with my life and where I wanted to be, but I lacked a clear path towards my end goal.

I wanted (and still want) to combat climate change, but telling people I was interested in the environment consistently led to discussions on the topic of renewable energy, and I slowly embodied everyone’s thoughts and this idea began to define who I was.

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In everyone’s mind, I was to use electrical engineering, create power systems, and somehow save the world by only implementing solar and wind. This was unrealistic and not who I wanted to be. But it was what everyone saw in me.

At the same time, even going along with everyone’s perception of me, I realized that I lacked action behind my words. I was a fraud, and this needed to change.

Declaring a double-major with environmental science proved as an outlet to help me come to terms with my identity (as I’ve mentioned in my introduction). I found myself diving headfirst into anything related to sustainability. I went on an immersion trip to Appalachia to learn more about coal mining and environmental injustice. I joined the Center for Sustainability and worked hard to make an impact on our campus through any means possible. I started a Solar Regatta team to teach people more about the intersect of renewable energy and engineering, interned at a solar company and at an engineering consulting firm to further the development of power systems, and recently began an internship at a utility company. Yet, throughout all this, I still felt like a fraud.

Tree planting through the Center for Sustainability (Source: Center for Sustainability)

Tree planting through the Center for Sustainability (Source: Center for Sustainability)

I kept ignoring the voice in my head. The one that made me passionate about the environment in the first place. I had the urge to do something and to do it well. I was tired of having this dream of helping the world, but when it came down to it, I couldn’t follow through. I needed something new. Something to turn my cynicism into hope and to remind me what life truly means. Something that showed that people aren’t self-obsessed and stressed about the minute details of life, but to create a vision of the world that they want to live in.

Luckily, Global Social Benefit Fellows (GSBF) was that something.

(read more about that here)

 

MIND GAMES

Having a momentary existential crisis? (Source: James Wang)

Having a momentary existential crisis? (Source: James Wang)

Applying for the fellowship was a last-minute decision. I had originally decided to intern once again at the same engineering consulting firm due to the lack of engineering-related projects provided through GSBF, but I realized almost too late the value of this program. This was an opportunity to broaden my horizons, explore social entrepreneurship (I had previously taken a class in high school about entrepreneurship and hated it, so I was a little scared to try again), and learn more about creating the impact that I was dying to achieve.

Yet, even after being accepted, I continued to question my decision.

When I told people that I was going to Zambia this summer, I received mixed reactions. Some of awe and support, others of fear and ignorance, and there were others who simply disapproved of my life’s path.

One remark haunted my decision: “Are you even a real engineer?”

Now, this may not seem too complicated. Many reading this might respond, “Of course you’re an engineer. You’ve taken the right classes, you’ve had a few internships, research opportunities, and participate in engineering clubs. Why wouldn’t you be one?”

Well, think about it this way. Here I am, a student who is so passionate about wanting more out of his life that he abandons a highly technical internship to undergo a fellowship that has little to no connection to engineering whatsoever. I’m “throwing away” my future to take part in a summer trip where I will not gain the same skills as I would at a company. Taking this class has a time conflict with other electrical engineering classes that would make me more qualified to be a designer, so instead, I’m on the path towards sales engineer at best, which apparently, would make me not a “real engineer.”

Wow. I truly struggled with this statement. Sure, I had come into college not really knowing or wanting to be an engineer, but after three years, it had grown on me. It was the first thing I told people when they asked me to introduce myself. It was my second skin. I had been a dorm counselor for a summer program (S.E.S.) educating high school students about what it was like to be an engineer. I gave tours every week to prospective students to show them what it was like to be an engineer. I had dived headfirst into engineering with the full intention of becoming an engineer, but suddenly, people were telling me that I wasn’t real.

It was an identity crisis. If I wasn’t an engineer, then who was I?

I found my answers throughout my journey in Zambia. I saw firsthand how beneficial an engineering product could have on the lives of so many people, but also the importance of even having the engineering mindset that I developed studying engineering. It helped me discern some of the problems within the agent trainings by being detail-oriented. It helped me optimize visuals and graphics within the sales manual, create schedules to ensure efficiency at work, and even with conflict resolution by rationally listening and explaining both sides of the story. I learned that being an engineer is more than just creating products. It is about fostering a problem-solving mindset to do good and help people. 

Engineering is like a social enterprise, regardless of the classification, what really matters is the intention. I had the intention to create change with my engineering degree, and I slowly came to terms with being an engineer, or at least not being the stereotypical engineer. 

Interviewing one of the sales agents

Interviewing one of the sales agents

 
And in this, I learned to appreciate that there are so many opportunities in life that we don’t need to just focus on only being good at one thing. We’re not trained for assembly lines, but to use our minds and think creatively. Sure, maybe we don’t know what our true interests are or where we may end up in 10 years, but we know what we like to do and what we want to do. If we understand that our passions can all be interconnected, then we have achieved what we set out to do.

I know this is a simple lesson, but it has had profound impacts on my future. Before the fellowship, I had always considered following the engineering route and seen myself as just another engineer who dabbles in sustainability, but now, I’m excited to learn more about different opportunities within the realm of sustainability with my engineering mindset to enable success.

MENTAL RENAISSANCE

College, especially Santa Clara University (though I cannot speak for other colleges since I have only ever attended SCU), spends a lot of time focusing on the individual.  What is your mental health status, how stressed are you, and what can you do to move forward in your life? We are rarely ever asked the bigger questions about who we want to be in the world, so we forget to think about ourselves in the bigger picture. I’m not saying that we should neglect who we are, but I believe that finding ourselves requires more external action rather than internal self-reflection. Like Gandhi says (which doubles as my favorite quote): “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

The meaning behind this quote has truly helped me come to terms with my idnetity. Throughout my youth, I volunteered consistently, and that gave me a purpose. Talking with people and seeing the reactions on their face as I provided a simple meal or helped a child with homework made their and my day a hundred times better. But the ambiguity of my own future and the need to finalize it within four years of college put me at a standstill, where I focused more on my own development rather than on addressing the needs of others.

Coming back from this fellowship provided this mental break that I needed. Throughout my journey, I met so many inspirational people—peers, mentors, and Zambians—who all reminded me to be my unapologetic self. That smiling at strangers was not creepy. That being optimistic didn’t make you a dreamer. That sometimes, a conversation with an open mind and an open heart is all that is required. I truly enjoyed being able to be present and interact with the people I was helping, and I can honestly say my heart is a little bit fuller.

Lying on the mattress on the way to Shiwang’andu

Lying on the mattress on the way to Shiwang’andu

I remember lying down on a mattress in the back of a truck on our way to Shiwang’andu from Mpika. Drew and I had begun talking about how all the upcoming and popular movies were about superheroes. We discussed how our culture continually looks for a savior in times of need, with people projecting concerns onto others, hoping that one person can create the change, so the rest of us remain complacent. Drew noted that social enterprises don’t focus on the individual, but rather on encouraging everyone to step up and become their own superhero. 

Before, I had always envisioned business as an evil entity to exacerbate planned obsolescence and consumerism, the work we did showed that business can and should create social value (echoed in Laudato Si). After reading Poor Economics and Getting Beyond Better, I had already really liked the concept of social entrepreneurship, but Drew’s statement at that moment resonated with me. The entrepreneurial mindset was not taking advantage of others but engaging them in the world.

Group of sales agents trained in Kasama and the future for VITALITE

Group of sales agents trained in Kasama and the future for VITALITE

Looking back at these past nine months, I feel both pride and sorrow. Pride at all the things that I have accomplished, learned, and experienced, but sorrow at no longer having this class and seeing all the amazing people who went on this journey with me. Although I never quite realized my transformation throughout the fellowship, as I write this, I finally understand how much I have grown and changed.

And although my future remains uncertain and my path somewhat undecided, I cannot wait to find my place, knowing that we are not limited by our major or our skills, but by the passion and dedication we hope to bring. 

Sunset on the Zambezi

Sunset on the Zambezi

In true engineering fashion, here are some TENTATIVE markers of success for me within the next ten years:

  • (1 year from now) Carry out Fulbright research in France OR find a sustainable company to work for

  • (2 years from now) Develop a useful product

  • (3 years from now) Apprentice at a bakery, while working in a sustainability-related career

  • (4 years from now) Earn another degree, potentially in something related to the interconnection of technology, environment, and sustainability

  • (6 years from now) Pursue geoengineering (now referred to as climate change intervention strategies)

  • (8 years from now) Work with a social enterprise (or multiple) to travel through different countries in West Africa to address needs and encourage participation


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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James Wang is a fourth-year double-majoring in Electrical Engineering and Environmental Science with minors in Mathematics and French & Francophone Studies. He is currently researching the ethical implications of geoengineering and working on his senior design project, an aquaponics system for food insecure communities.

Upon graduation, he hopes to receive a Fulbright scholarship to research in France regarding a new energy storage system—a hybrid supercapacitor. In the future, he hopes to couple his passion for the environment with his interest in technology to pursue climate change intervention methods, potentially geoengineering.

For more information, he welcomes anyone to contact him through email or Linkedin and exploring the rest of his blog!

The audacious goal of energy access

The audacious goal of energy access

Over the last decade, I have worked directly or indirectly with dozens of social enterprises tackling energy access. Solar lights, biomass-powered chillers, and solar pumps are just a few of the well-known technologies that have been proven to dramatically improve quality of life for the global poor and often pay for themselves in as little as a few months. The challenge remains getting them out to everyone who can benefit from them.

Chasing the 2030 Goal

We understand that it’s more than a distribution problem, aspects of which Miller Center originally documented in 2015 in Universal Energy Access: an Enterprise System Approach. There remain persistent business model and financing challenges, which we have explored in our latest paper, Closing the Circuit: Accelerating Clean Energy Investment in India, written in partnership with the William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan.

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Progress has been made, as evidenced by the number of people lacking modern lighting dropping from 1.5 billion in 2009 to 1.1 billion in 2018. We are moving in the right direction, but not fast enough to meet United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal #7 of affordable and clean energy for everyone on the planet by 2030.

Optimism Prevails

I go through periods of optimism and pessimism about achieving anything close to such an audacious goal. Logic dictates that the easiest to serve are being reached first, so progress will get harder instead of easier. Sure, I am optimistic when I hear about new technologies, business model innovations, and new investment funds focused on energy access. But I also become pessimistic when I talk to brilliant, committed, focused entrepreneurs who are spending more time fundraising than running their businesses.

Right now, I’m optimistic, having spent last week in Delhi for events including the National Dialogue on Distributed Renewable Energy and an Energy Access Practitioner’s Roundtable. These events culminated Miller Center’s work over the last three years with New Ventures to implement the USAID-supported Energy Access India program, providing accompaniment to a portfolio of 30 social enterprises and developing relationships with key investors.

Much of the optimism comes from spending time with dear colleagues including the New Ventures India team, our advisors, Rakesh Rewari and Harvey Koh, and many of the social entrepreneurs we have worked with. There have been wins for many of the entrepreneurs in the program, including major investment into Cygni and Husk Power Systems.

Yet, lack of capital is holding companies back. $275 billion dollars of investment are needed to provide enough off-grid and mini-grid systems to achieve SDG #7. The best that social entrepreneurs can do for themselves is develop a solid business plan, a justifiable ask, and seek out capital that is aligned. But I am now convinced that ever larger numbers of capable social enterprises with strong business plans alone won’t unlock capital.

To many of us working at the ecosystem level, it is clear that there are many excellent entrepreneurs that are not getting funding, or are getting funding, but not in a timely and efficient fashion. Why is that?

The Risk/Return Spectrum for Clean Energy Investments

One of the biggest areas of learning for me during this project was to better see the energy access challenge from the investors’ point of view. I had the privilege of working with investor-minded colleagues like Mark Correnti (now of Shine Campaign, a co-sponsor of Closing the Circuit) and directly with insightful investors. Through them, I have learned much about what unlocking capital truly means.

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Investors face their own sets of constraints that guide how they deploy capital. In our research for the paper, we detected opportunities for investors to consider alternatives in credit risk assessment to increase access to affordable, short-term debt and to develop a more realistic risk/return spectrum for clean energy investments (especially in India). Progressive investors such as SunFunder are proving that such investments can work. We hope these models will be built on by others.

Of course, it’s easy to write these ideas here and much harder to implement them. Yet, given the proven clean energy solutions we have at hand and the knowledge that energy access is an enabler for so many quality-of-life improvements, shouldn’t we all continue our push to support the intrepid energy entrepreneurs who are at the forefront of this movement?


About the author

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Since joining in 2008, Andy Lieberman has been a driver in developing Miller Center's strategy, programming, and curriculum. He is also responsible for many of the efforts to formalize Miller Center's knowledge into whitepapers and presentations.


 

Social Enterprises Merge in Search of Scale

Social Enterprises Merge in Search of Scale

“Scale” is a nebulous and elusive concept in the social enterprise ecosystem. However, if the community is to make any tangible progress toward the social impact objective it seeks to achieve, like energy access for all, or access to clean water and sanitation, scale is an essential topic for us to wrestle with. The recent merger of Pollinate Energy and Empower Generation, two of our Global Social Benefit Institute (GSBI®) alumni social enterprises, provides a look at a new and rarely seen avenue toward scale.

Click here   for more details on Sustainable Development Goal 7: Affordable and clean energy.

Click here for more details on Sustainable Development Goal 7: Affordable and clean energy.

Since 2003 GSBI has accelerated over 893 social entrepreneurs by delivering a  world-class accelerator programs that connect global social enterprise leaders with Silicon Valley business executives to develop more sustainable, scalable market-based solutions to the problems of those living in poverty around the world. Over the past 15 years, we have seen that there is no single “right way” to scale. However, we have seen some themes emerge.

In search of scale, GSBI alumni have perused a number of distinct paths. Some entcerprises are able to leverage their proof of concept and record of success into large investments that will afford them the possibility of dramatic expansion. This was the case with GSBI alumni Husk Power Systems, who recently raised over $20 million to add an additional 300 mini grids in India and Tanzania and bring energy access to over 100,000 customers.

Founded in Mexico, Sistema Biobolsa has replicated operations in Kenya.

Other alumni, like Sistema Biobolsa, see replication as the most promising avenue toward scale. Sistema Biobolsa, worked with the GSBI Replication Initiative to package its business model and technology and cultivate international partnership that can replicate its success in new geographies.

But what if there are already a number of social enterprises that utilize a similar model? Organic expansion becomes difficult because the competitive landscape reduces the potential addressable market, and replication becomes challenging, as replicating organizations may face significant challenges from their more established local counterparts.

While many may seen  a challenge, GSBI alumni Alexie Seller of Pollinate Energy, and Anya Chefneff of Empower Generation saw an opportunity.

Pollinate Energy and Empower Generation both aim to increase last mile distribution of socially beneficial products (solar lanterns, clean cookstoves, etc) by training and employing women (and men) who live in under-resourced and under-served communities.  Pollinate works in India and Empower Generation in Nepal.

Empower Generation’s model and impact to date is impressive. Launched in 2011, its distribution network includes 20 women-led businesses that manage over 250 sales agents, working as village-level entrepreneurs and earning an income with every product sold. As of December 2017, the network has distributed 57,000+ clean energy products, saving Nepalese families over $2,737,000 AUD in household energy expenses and displacing 12,861 tons of CO2 by replacing kerosene and candles. Empower Generation has impacted the lives of 294,626 people by providing them with cleaner, safer access to power, light, and cook stoves.

Pollinate Energy has also had an impressive track record and has reached over 130,000 individuals in over 1000 communities throughout India. In sum, Pollinate has helped to save over 4 million liters of kerosene- offsetting almost 10 million kgs of CO2 emissions. They have also helped to save Indian families over 215 million rupees.

Stronger together: by merging, Pollinate Energy and Empower Generation anticipate an accelerated path to scale (Source: Pollinate Energy)

Stronger together: by merging, Pollinate Energy and Empower Generation anticipate an accelerated path to scale (Source: Pollinate Energy)

Alexie and Anya first met through a connection made through GSBI.  “We Immediately saw that there were significant similarities between both of their models, as well as highly aligned leadership values and ambitions. There was the right set of raw ingredients for a strong collaboration,” said Cassandra Staff, Chief Operating Officer at Miller Center.

By merging, the two organizations will be able to leverage their increased size for greater purchasing power and economies of scale. They will also be able to amplify each other’s strengths and distinct advantages.

For example, one organization had more a sophisticated operational system; leveraging these systems across the newly-merged organization will streamline processes, supply chain, data collection and analysis, sales force recruitment, and leadership.  On the other hand, the other party had much more advanced skills-development programs for their staff and sales agents. By integrating these trainings, the talent at Pollinate Energy will have the skills needed to scale with their organization

“One exciting development for India will be adopting Empower Generation’s rural-based sales approach. This will allow us to reach remote families who are currently missing out on accessing our life-changing products. Together, we will reach millions faster and more efficiently, and be better placed to empower women to play a central role in the development of their communities and their families. This is critical when our model still currently relies on the support of generous donors to support our growth,” says Alexie Seller, who will remain as CEO for the new merged organization.”

While there are obvious advantages of leveraging each other’s strengths, the process of identifying those strengths and determining the practicality of merging was not without its own challenges.  In order to help facilitate the merger process, Miller Center Executive Fellow, Steven White accompanied both of these organizations throughout the process and provided strategic advice on how to navigate this process.

 

Source for banner image: Sustainable Energy for All. Click here to view the recorded announcement of the merger between Pollinate Energy and Empower Generation.