National Geographic helped advance the cause of sustainable energy for off-grid communities by crowning the winners of the Terra Watt Prize — the first competition of its kind — on June 11 in Washington, D.C. As torchbearers for cleaner, safer, and cheaper energy alternatives for the global poor, co-champions Mera Gao Micro Grid Power (MGP) and EGG-energy Tanzania Limited (EGG) beat out over 50 other teams to split $250,000 in grant money to implement their winning ideas.
MGP, headed by India-based Nikhil Jaisinghani, used its extensive experience building, owning, and operating low-cost, solar-powered microgrids to edge out the competition with its innovative proposal to provide poor, off-grid communities with quality indoor lighting and telephone-charging services in Uttar Pradesh, India. MGP will use its $125,000 prize money to set up 140 microgrids, each providing power to roughly 25 households for up to seven hours per night.
EGG, which currently provides affordable, clean-energy solutions to rural communities in Tanzania, impressed the judges with its proposal to install mobile-connected, rent-to-own solar systems in Tanzania’s Tanga region. EGG’s co-founder Jamie Yang developed an integrated IT system that allows customers to make payments via mobile money and provides remote diagnostics to troubleshoot system problems.
Making it through to the winner’s circle was no easy feat. The Terra Watt Prize challenged competitors to develop the most feasible and scalable proposal to provide at least 50 households with basic electricity, or enough power to charge one cellular telephone and illuminate three light bulbs. What’s more, competitors had to sell the judges on how they would turn their proposals from a 50-household project into a sustainable, long-term venture.
To judge the Terra Watt Prize, which kicked off in November 2013, National Geographic enlisted the expertise of 42 energy specialists, including 31 active investors who collectively oversee more than $100 million earmarked for companies delivering energy services to developing countries. With the help of the judges, National Geographic designed the application process to mirror the due diligence conducted in a typical business acquisition, thereby requiring the competitors to undergo a rigorous screening process.
The Terra Watt Prize was conceived as a way to bring together and incentivize sustainable-energy advocates to address two critical challenges facing the field of energy access: attracting needed capital investment and proving a sustainable business model. To support this mission, and also unique among challenge competitions, the Terra Watt Prize encouraged its judges, once the competition was complete, to take an active role by considering an investment in applicants who demonstrated commercial promise — a process that can raise additional capital and/or technical assistance for the sustainable energy field.
Almost 20 percent of the planet’s population have no access to clean and reliable energy — a sobering fact that deprives millions of people access to education, health, and social opportunities. Fortunately, affordable solutions exist today. The challenge is to identify the right organizations that have properly honed their business models. The Terra Watt Prize and its inaugural winners do just that. By mobilizing energy activists and encouraging investment, National Geographic is helping to play an important role in reaching the global poor with clean, affordable energy — a small down payment on the promise for a brighter tomorrow.