The vast majority of businesses in Nigeria use diesel or gasoline-powered generators for electricity. (Photo by Wayan Vota via Creative Commons)
The majority of businesses in Nigeria use diesel or gasoline-powered generators for electricity. (Photo by Wayan Vota via Creative Commons)
The majority of businesses in Nigeria use diesel or gasoline-powered generators for electricity. (Photo by Wayan Vota via Creative Commons)

Part one of a four-part series

Startup companies that store and generate energy, save water, turn indecipherable energy data into usable information and fill a host of other clean energy-related missions will compete for $500,000 in prize money — as well as court investors and mentors — at the Clean Energy Challenge in Chicago on April 3.

The event, hosted annually by the Clean Energy Trust, brings together startups in several categories to make rapid-fire presentations to judges, investors and other interested parties, after working for weeks with mentors as part of the ongoing clean energy startup accelerator program.

Since launching in 2010, the event has helped participants obtain $40 million in follow-up funding, according to the Trust, and connected startups with a network of several hundred industry partners.

Midwest Energy News is a media sponsor for this year’s event.

Clean Energy Trust president Amy Francetic said that this year’s crop of entrants were heavy on battery and energy storage technology, on different scales and in various creative forms.

“This year we have seen what I would call a lot of innovation and some maturing technology in storage and micro-grid,” said Francetic, adding that “folks are doing unusual and inventive things with storage.”

She said the “really great bubbling up of battery and storage companies” showcased at the challenge “reflects well what’s happening in the broader industry,” including with the advent of the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR) in Chicago.

Francetic also noted that a number of entrants this year address the link between water and energy issues.

“We have this whole awareness of water purification and the water-energy nexus, how usage of water is crucial to energy, how the need to conserve water is becoming more known by big industrial users down to consumers,” she said.

The Challenge entrants also mirror the increasing consumer and industry focus on analytics and the role of accessible information in driving energy efficiency and conservation, and the related role of smart meters and appliances.

“Everyone’s spirits have been buoyed by the Nest acquisition,” said Francetic, referring to Google’s acquisition of the smart thermostat startup for $3.2 billion. “That breathed some life into the sector.” She said that deal showed investors and others realize “the benefit of the connected home, data analytics…that you can use data, connect to larger infrastructure and drive behavior modification.”

Over the coming week Midwest Energy News will highlight four of the Challenge finalists.

Electrified by Beacon Power Services: Early stage finalist

Bimbola “Bim” Adisa has worked in high-level technology and finance as an aerospace engineer and investment banker. Now he spends much of his time focused on helping transform how people in his native Nigeria obtain and use electricity. Nigeria has one of the most dense populations in the world, and it also has one of the lowest rates of electrification.

Adisa’s company, Beacon Power Services (BPS), aims to make electricity increasingly available and affordable, while also cutting down on the serious air pollution that results from running millions of dirty, inefficient diesel generators that the country relies on for most of its power needs.

BPS introduced the Beacon Monitor to the Nigerian market in 2013. Beacon Monitor is a monitoring and software program that measures and controls power use at commercial facilities including banks and fast food outlets. Badisa said the monitor “allows facility owners to reduce their energy use, costs and related pollution.

“By making energy usage information basic and easy to understand,” he continued, “the Beacon Monitor helps to convince business owners to right-size their generators. Operating smaller diesel generators better-suited to their needs reduces diesel use, which helps save money and the environment. The device also serves as a tool for greater efficiency, helping to identify and eliminate energy waste, such as employees leaving appliances on when facilities are closed.”

The monitoring may also convince business owners that they can get all or much of their electricity from a solar installation, saving money in the long run and cutting down on pollution. The information from the monitoring helps business owners convince banks to give them financing for energy upgrades.

BPS provides consulting on and installation of solar arrays for businesses.

“There are about 17 million registered businesses in Nigeria, and an estimated 98 percent use generators for 70 percent of their power,” said Adisa. “Imagine 98 percent of businesses in the US having to run generators for their power. The power is expensive and causes social issues” – including horrendous air pollution. “Nigerians pay seven to eight times what we do for their energy, it’s crippling.”

Adisa’s goal is for half of the monitoring clients to purchase solar installations from BPS. And he would like to see businesses that operate multiple facilities – like banks and restaurants – installing the Beacon Monitor in all their locations across the country, with all the results compiled into a single report. He also hopes to expand beyond Nigeria into the broader sub-Saharan Africa region, growing with businesses that BPS already serves in Nigeria.

Adisa’s home base is in Chicago, where he moved in 2002 to get his MBA at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. But he spends much of his time in Nigeria, where he went to high school and still has family.

When asked about his shift in career from investment banking and building aircraft engines, Adisa said, “It’s still scary, it took a while to convince myself and my wife that I’m not crazy! But there are very few times where you have an opportunity to make a huge impact… here’s an opportunity to create an impact: to solve a real problem, to create jobs in Nigeria, to save people money on energy, and make money for my investors and shareholders, and have a huge social and environmental impact.”

He compares the introduction of energy monitoring and small-scale distributed solar power with the influx of cell phones in Nigeria in years past, which transformed communication and business in the country.

“It could be a disruptive technology that really changes the landscape.”

Kari has written for the Energy News Network since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.

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