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Energy from Rice Husks? Solar-Powered Milk Chillers? There's a Map for That!

Friday, Jun. 17, 2011

A new “Energy Map” is giving students and teachers a rare glimpse into the struggles and triumphs of companies providing energy and clean fuel to people off the radar of the PG&Es of the world.

The site provides details about the business models, technologies, and regional conditions behind 40 social enterprises in 16 countries. The businesses are overcoming vast hurdles to bring electricity or alternative fuel to 500 to 500,000 people apiece in remote parts of the developing world.

The Energy Map was the brainchild of several leaders at Santa Clara University’s Center for Science, Technology, and Society (CSTS), which for the past decade has hosted an annual competitive training program for social entrepreneurs (Global Social Benefit Incubator) and judged hundreds of contestants for the annual Tech Awards from the Tech Museum.

The group saw that the 40 energy businesses that had come through GSBI or the Tech Awards were a great untapped resource. They spent six months surveying the 40 ventures, detailing in plain language how they overcame hurdles like limited resources; weak distribution or infrastructure channels; or lack of financing. The resulting site is helping to speed up the learning curve for students, researchers, aid groups and social entrepreneurs interested in the issue.

So far, it’s being well-received. “People really like the easily digested nuggets of information they get here,” said Andy Lieberman, the program manager for the Energy Map at CSTS. “They are surprised to see so many common elements among seemingly disparate companies.”

The map site includes quick explainers of terms like biomass, passive solar, and carbon offsets. It also provides mini case studies of companies like Cows to Kilowatts, a Nigerian company that built a “biogas digester” to process waste from slaughtered cows into biogas. The stories describe how the businesses ended up with their current business and financing models, and how they are dealing with problems specific to their region or industry.

For example, Sunlabob Renewable Energy, a Laos-based franchiser of solar energy products, learned that it was hard to disconnect tardy customers when the solar panels were affixed to homes, so they changed to a portable-lantern model.

 The site contains video vignettes, links to company websites, as well as links to extra resources.

The solutions being described in the Energy Map are likely to become more and more pertinent, both to developing countries and to developed nations like the United States, Lieberman and his colleagues say. As oil gets more expensive and gas and energy prices start to spike, some of the innovations already underway in poor rural areas could be useful in the U.S.

“These ventures are making great strides in the fight for more just and sustainable access to energy for the 1.5 billion people who are currently excluded,” said Lieberman. “That’s core to our mission at CSTS.”

CSTS created the Energy Map in partnership with social-enterprise information company Ayllu.

Read more.


June 17, 2011


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