Indian Solar Energy Project Takes Home $100,000 IEEE Prize

The Empower a Billion Lives global competition aims to remove energy-access barriers

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Three people looking at a computer screen.
A family living in an off-grid village in Tanzania's Lake Zone region tests a converter for their solar home system made by Solaris
Photo: IEEE Empower a Billion Lives

THE INSTITUTE The IEEE Power Electronics Society (PELS) organized the Empower a Billion Lives (EBL) global competition to crowdsource ideas that could improve energy access in underserved communities. The competition’s solutions were aimed at addressing the energy-access needs of the 3 billion people living in energy poverty, including 1 billion people who have no access at all to energy services, as identified by the International Energy Agency.

“Energy access is an area where IEEE has the expertise and global reach and can review viable solutions to help de-risk market entry for solutions that will address the challenge,” says Deepakraj M. Divan, global steering chair of EBL.

Teams developed agnostic technology solutions using renewable and sustainable 21st-century technologies that were regionally respectful and had sound business plans that could be scaled up to address more people.

Solutions had to provide users with at least 200 watt-hours of electricity per day—an amount sufficient for a variety of activities beyond just providing lighting, such as cellphone charging, pumping water, running fans, milling, and refrigeration.

The competition consisted of an online round, a regional round, field-testing, and then the global final. More than 475 teams from 70-plus countries registered for the 2018 online round. They came from universities, companies, research labs, and nonprofit organizations.

The regional rounds included 82 teams selected from proposals submitted online. The sessions were held in Atlanta; Chennai, India; Johannesburg; Seville, Spain; and Shenzhen, China. The field-testing included the 23 teams that had won at the regionals. The field-testing of solutions was deployed in an area where there was no access to electricity and where people lived on less than US $1.90 per day.

 “The format of Empower a Billion Lives was helpful for the teams because they were able to interact with experts in the power electronics field,” says Mike Kelly, IEEE PELS executive director. “I think the feedback they received was invaluable in helping them further develop their solutions.”

The global final winner—selected based on the technology the team used, the project’s social impact, the business model, and field-testing data—was Solar Urja Through Localization for Sustainability, which collected the $100,000 grand prize. SoULS, founded at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay in Mumbai, India, is an initiative that provides training and support for women to become entrepreneurs in the solar business.


The World Bank reports that more than 200 million people in India are not connected to the power grid.

The winning SoULS solution trains women and schoolchildren to assemble simple solar lamps that students bring home to use while studying at night. After constructing the lamps, the female entrepreneurs learn to assemble, install, and repair more sophisticated solar solutions. Hundreds of women who received the training now run factories.

“So far 700 women-led factories have opened up in 10 states serving 317 subdistricts and 40,000 villages,” Divan says. “One of the great advantages to this model is the money the women make stays within the community.”

Additionally, many of the women have opened up stores to offer villagers related products such as solar panels, DC appliances, batteries, and accessories.

The global final was made possible by funding from PELS, Vicor, ON Semiconductor, Southern Power, Kehua, Sungrow, and Texas Instruments. The IEEE Foundation provided partnership and support along with the Center for Distributed Energy at Georgia Tech.

The next EBL competition is scheduled to begin next year.

Jeremiah Daniels is a former intern for The Institute. Jane Celusak is a PELS project manager.

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