With a mission to bring electricity to over three billion people living in the energy poverty regions of the world, IEEE Power Electronics Society (PELS) launched Empower a Billion Lives (EBL) global competition in 2018 to address the energy problems of underserved regions. The response was tremendous. Some 450 teams from 70 countries registered for the competition, which was then reduced to 23 teams after a rigorous judging process. Representatives of these 23 teams then came to Baltimore, Maryland, USA for EBL global finals, which was held 28–29 September 2019 alongside IEEE Energy Conversion Congress and Exposition in Baltimore. A grand prize of US$100,000 was won by team SoULS from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay in Mumbai, India. Likewise, the other winning teams shared US$115,000 in additional prizes, which included Entrepreneurs du Monde and Okra from Cambodia, Solar Worx from Germany, Havenhill Synergy from Nigeria, and Reeddi from Canada/Nigeria as the winning student team. Additional prizes were won by X-Power from Rwanda, Simusolar from Tanzania, and Connex Solar from Scotland .
The tremendous success of EBL-I has prompted its global steering committee under chair Prof. Deepak Divan of Georgia Institute of Technology to announce EBL-II. On 30 June 2021, a virtual workshop “Access and Empower a Billion Lives II,” hosted by IEEE PELS and IEEE TV, was held to launch the second EBL global competition. The workshop timing was 8:00 am to 12:30 pm eastern daylight time, USA. According to the organizers, the workshop on energy access provided a platform for bringing together a diverse community dedicated to solving the challenges posed by equitable energy access. The aim is to improve the understanding of the needs and capabilities of various stakeholders, while continuing the dialogue on collaboration, and exploring ways to expand the global energy access community (EAC). Building on the success of the first EBL, EBL-II will take inputs from prior EBL-I teams and the energy access communities in crafting the next competition, according to the chair.
Setting the stage for the virtual workshop, Prof. Divan, EBL global steering chair, welcomed the participating volunteers and invited Chetan Singh Solanki of team SouLS and Olusegun Odunaiya of team Havenhill Synergy to talk about their experience since winning the EBL-I competition. Solanki stated that the success of SoULS (Solar Urja through Localization for Sustainability) initiative has empowered women in India and “we are now planning to take this model to other countries.” While Odunaiya’s company is busy deploying mini grids and internet services in local communities in Nigeria to further help local businesses. He said that standards have been helpful in deployment of our solutions, but now the question is how to overlay standards on fast moving technologies? Havenhill has a vision of providing electricity to over 1 million Nigerians by 2025.
The first panel session “Towards universal energy access – barriers and pathways to scale” was kicked off by moderator Nana Nuamoah Asamoah-Manu of International Finance Corporation (IFC), Kenya, with panelists Divyam Nagpal, program officer at International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), Nishant Narayan, program manager at SEforALL, and Suleiman Babamanu, a renewable energy specialist at Nigerian Rural Electrification Agency. The overall consensus of the panelists was that the companies today are working in silos for a solution. For a true viable holistic future solution for energy poverty regions of the world, they must work in partnership with other companies, stake holders, government agencies and local communities, agreed the panelists. Political will was another barrier raised by the panelists. Answering that question, Babamanu said that in Nigeria the government is very serious in working with companies, world bank and other agencies to generate solutions that can benefit the off-grid communities in the country.
Panel Session 2 “Technologies enabling universal energy access” was moderated by Silard Liptak, CTO at Agsol with Panelists Nick Singh, Smart Grid Center of Excellence Manager at Eskom, South Africa, Makena Ireri, manager at CLASP, East Africa, and Claudio Shawawreh, hardware/firmware engineer at Solaris Offgrid, Spain. Before inviting the panelists, Liptak presented his views on offering solutions for off-grid farmers. At Agsol, he said, “we are developing ultra-low cost technologies for the off-grid communities in Kenya and China.” Agsol is readying machines that offer clean, adaptable and affordable alternatives to diesel mills and manual processing, as well as filling an energy gap in food processing for small rural communities. While Singh’s talk focused on universal gateways for smart grids, Ireri highlighted the need for high efficiency appliances and interoperability for accelerating clean energy access. Shawawreh argued that there are multiple definitions of scalability and interoperability and, therefore, the organizers must clearly define these parameters for the competition.
After a break of ten minutes, the chair opened the stage for panel session 3 “Energy access stakeholders’ collaboration and the role of IEEE,” which was moderated by Jelena Popovic, EBL vice-chair and professor at the University of Twente, The Netherlands, who stated that effective solutions will be generated when we all work together to solve these challenging problems. The panelists for this session included Rajan Kapur, VP IEEE Smart Village (ISV) and founder of Larankelo Ventures, Colorado, USA, Sampathkumar Veeraraghavan, IEEE Humanitarian Activities Committee (HAC) chair and program management leader with Alexa Artificial Intelligence Group at Amazon, USA, Lwanga Herbert, IEEE SIGHT chair and co-founder of Log’el Science Foundation, Uganda, and Anuradha Annaswamy, past-president of IEEE Control Systems Society (CSS) and director of the active adaptive control laboratory and a senior research scientist in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, MIT, Cambridge, MA, USA. Kapoor educated the attendees on the work of ISV and how it is combining energy, education and entrepreneurship to generate solutions to empower off-grid communities around the world. Likewise, Veeraraghavan shed light on the four pillars of HAC – awareness, training, projects, and sustainable development community. “HAC brings together entities in the sustainable development space within and beyond IEEE, stated Veeraraghavan. Annaswamy described the role of automation in energy access and CSS sponsored workshops on control for societal-scale challenges. She said that CSS was delighted to partner with PELS in EBL-II. In summary, to extend the foot-print of energy access, the panelists agreed that they all have to work together with a common goal.
Next, a discussion on stakeholder’s perspective “If we could wave a magic wand, what is the outcome we would want?” was moderated by Prof. Issa Batarseh, EBL vice-chair and a professor at the University of Central Florida, FL, USA, with presenters Olivier Jacquet, business development VP of Schneider Electric, and Bill Nussey, founder of Freeing Energy Project, a start-up with a mission to educate and inspire innovators to join forces and accelerate the shift to renewables through the smart adoption of decentralized generation of electricity. Jacquet believes that microgrid is the future but the challenge is financing. “We need to have sustainable access to financing, asserted Jacquet. Similarly, according to Nussey, policy, finance, and technology together can truly drive economic development. He is looking forward to a LEGO type brick solution that can grow incrementally and cheaply.
The last panel session 4 “Empower a Billion Lives II Global Competition – stakeholder input” was moderated by Prof. Divan. The panelists included Ali Husain, marketing manager at ON Semiconductor, Richard Mori, co-founder and CEO of Meshpower, Nana Nuamoah Asamoah-Manu of IFC, and Silard Liptak of Agsol. Before handing over the mike to the panelists, Prof. Divan presented a simple question to all, “what worked and what can be improved in EBL-II.” Asamoah-Manu agreed with the moderator and reiterated the question. He added, we need more collaborations, work together, and top-down/bottom-up perspectives. Husain continued the discussion by saying “we would like EBL-II to deliver sustainable energy access that can be put to productive use.” This was followed by an open discussion wherein a representative from world bank, a supporter of EBL-I, said that he was impressed with the performance of EBL-I and going forward he would like to see more focus on partnerships and a roadmap that shows the progression going from EBL-I to EBL-II to EBL-III and so on. Lastly, EBL vice-chair Popovic hinted at gender diversity in EBL-II.
In summary, the workshop was a great start for EBL-II. I would like to know how many millions benefited from the initial EBL project and what is the goal for the second initiative. And when will the three billion people living in energy poverty regions see light at the end of the tunnel?
 “Team SoULS Wins US$100,000 in the IEEE Empower a Billion Lives Global Competition” by Deepak Divan, Entrepreneur Viewpoint, IEEE Power Electronics Magazine, December 2019, p.12
 IEEE PELS, Empower a Billion Lives Page