Renewable Energy for Underserved Communities

 Renewable Energy for Underserved Communities

With all the current discussion on topics like renewable energy,policies to incentivize solar investment, product cost and pricing, anddifferent technologies and which one will emerge as the consumer choice, is anyone asking how the 2 billion people who currently do not haveaccess to electricity obtain that access?

To recognize the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, the leaders of SantaClara University’s Center for Science, Technology and Society asked that very question toexperts in the field at a conference sponsored by Applied Materials last month. Billed as “Power to the People, Renewable Energy for Underserved Communities,” a number of subject matter experts explored the topicwith business and community leaders, community benefit organizationleaders, and Santa Clara students.

The first section of the conference focused on Renewable Innovationsfor Base of the Pyramid Communities. The topic evoked excellent dialogue from panelists such as Ella Delio of the NewVentures initiative at the World Resources Institute, offeringinsightfulness on the energy needs of the poor in India, where 114million households annually spend $4.75 billion on either kerosene orfirewood and dung fuel sources. Delio championed four areas to improveconditions in India: 1) Decentralized Renewable Energy; 2) Solar HomeSector; 3) Solar Lanterns; and 4) Energy Efficient Cook Stoves. Thereality of these needs sinks in when you consider the challenges ofgovernment policy, cost of products and the reluctance to changepersonal habits such as cooking techniques.

Other energy topics discussed were biofuels as a supplement to diesel created by the tropical plant Jatropha Curcas from Federico Grati of Agroils, HuskPower Systems (turn rice husk into fuel), and blueEnergy, who provides marginalized communities with energy sources from wind and solar in Nicaragua.

All of these technologies and techniques offer realisticopportunities. Scalability and mass market acceptance was the bigquestion mark for me.

Closer to Silicon Valley, the second session of the conferencefocused on Renewable Innovations for Bay Area Communities.  Representing viewpoints were Kurt Yeager from the Galvin ElectricityInitiative, Ben Tarbell of SolarCity, Mary Biasotti of GRIDAlternatives, and Preet Anand, as a Santa Clara University studentwho was part of the university’s Solar Decathlon team and Refract Houseproject. My bias of interest and support was immediate for this group as Applied Materials provides contributions and employee support to bothGRID Alternative and Santa Clara’s Solar Decathlon team. I was impressed by the entire panel and proud of our funding partnerships and theirpresentations.

SolarCity focuses on a low cost, no up-front cost approach tofinancing solar installations via a Power Purchase Agreement. Whereasproduct differentiation may be difficult for some, they use financingoptions as the value proposition.  The Galvin Electricity Initiative onthe other hand, was a cutting edge presentation on how to move an almost immovable regulatory system that does not sufficiently encouragecompetitive alternatives to fossil fuel energy. Mr. Yeager wasprovocative in is examination of the issues, to say the least.

If you want to help low income families in Silicon Valley and otherparts of California have access to solar energy then GRID Alternativesis your solution. They mostly partner with Habitat for Humanity but dohave other models. Applied Materials has partnered with them on threedifferent occasions to place solar panels on rooftops of localresidences. Our employees love the opportunity to volunteer and connecttheir work with helping to improve the lives of others. Many of ouremployees help design equipment to make solar panels within our company, but don’t get exposed to the customer to see how lives are impactedthrough their work. GRID Alternatives enables that connection.

Finally, if you ever wonder whether future generations will be ableto crack the code on climate change and build a society that issustainable, then I suggest you get exposed to Preet Anand and all ofhis classmates at Santa Clara University.  He was so articulate with his description of the university’s involvement in the U.S. Department ofEnergy’s SolarDecathlon competition (SCU partnered with California College of theArts and placed 3rd out of 20 teams across the globe –impressive) that I was convinced he will be part of the greatengineering solutions needed to reverse climate change activity.

Applied Materials is fortunate to have a culture of innovatingsolutions for the toughest engineering problems and for supportingcommunity causes that truly improve people’s lives.