Renewable energy, a sustainable way to tackle the energy access challenge

“More than a billion people worldwide don’t have access to electricity,” says Samson Hadush, postdoctoral researcher in the Energy Centre. “Four of this year’s Global Social Projects help to lift communities out of energy poverty with renewable energy solutions, bringing social and economic as well as environmental benefits.”

Projects with a social purpose

In the final year of their curriculum, Masters and MBA students undertake an in-company project, usually in teams of two or three. These projects typically involve market research or some form of consultancy. If the project serves a social purpose, if it seeks to support social entrepreneurship in one way or other, then it is labelled a Global Social Project (GSP). Organisations engaging in GSPs benefit from a reduced rate compared to that applicable to standard in-company projects.

Benefiting the environment

Samson: “As it happens, most of this year’s GSPs are in the field of renewable energy. One of the School’s strategic focuses is the energy sector, so these projects are right in our sweet spot,” Samson says. “What these GSPs have in common is that they address the energy access problem in disadvantaged communities, and that they do so in a sustainable way.”

And he explains: “Energy from fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and natural gas, is non-renewable energy as fossil fuels are finite, i.e. they can’t be replenished. The exploration, extraction and conversion of these non-renewable sources have become more expensive, and the production as well as the use of non-renewable energy damages the environment, mainly through CO2 emissions. However, we’ll never run out of renewable energy sources, such as the sun and the wind. These sources are infinite, they quickly replenish themselves and they can be used again and again. Energy derived from these sources, i.e. renewable energy, provides a sustainable and environmentally-friendly alternative to the non-renewable fossil fuels.”

M-Power: how to scale up the business

In India, three of our MBA students proved their worth on a project at M-Power. This engineering consultancy company had been in business for three years, advising its clients on how to achieve the optimal mix of renewable energy sources. But the management was not entirely satisfied with the company’s performance: it was difficult to attract new clients. Samson: “Our students studied the company inside out: its business model, structure and organisation, challenging the company on a range of issues. They proposed an alternative business model that would better meet the needs of the organisation, aligning social impact, profitability, feasibility and financial means, and they suggested a strategy to improve customer acquisition.”

Durabilis: setting up a solar business unit

Social investment company Durabilis specialises in agricultural projects and sustainable development in countries such as Guatemala, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Ethiopia. They are one of the School’s long-standing partners for in-company projects. “This year they commissioned their first renewable energy project and it turned out to be exceptionally fruitful,” Samson says with a big smile. “Following a successful solar energy pilot in Burkina Faso, Durabilis wanted to set up a new business unit specialising in renewable energy. A team of Masters students carried out an extensive market study to determine which business model would work best to acquire clients in the West-African market. And they went the extra mile: not only did they test the business model with potential clients, they also managed to establish leads.”

Solcor: how to get a start-up up and running

Two Belgian engineers went to Chile, to set up Solcor, an energy services company providing solar energy solutions to reduce the energy costs and carbon footprint of SMEs. To get started, the company needed financial support. “But the engineers didn’t have the time to prepare the necessary documentation, which is where our Masters students came in. They wrote business, financial and investments plans, so Solcor could start approaching investors, as well as useful documents for prospective clients, such as term sheets and bank proposals,” says Samson, adding proudly: “And here too, our students did more than expected. They went into the market and contacted potential clients. As a result, they generated several leads. The owners were extremely satisfied and complimentary about the project and Solcor is now up and running.”

Krinner Solar: solar solutions for the Native American community

The fourth of this year’s renewable energy GSPs was carried out in the USA, not exactly a developing country, but not entirely without disadvantaged communities either. German company Krinner has been developing innovative mounting systems for almost 25 years. More recently it founded a solar solutions business, Krinner Solar, which uses one of the mother company’s innovations, i.e. the ground screw system. Because the solar systems are mounted using these ground screws, they require no concrete foundations, making for an even more environmentally-friendly and sustainable solution. Samson: “Krinner Solar wanted to enter the US market, offering engineering, procurement and construction of solar solutions to the Native American community. Our Masters students explored the market potential for utility scale solar projects in tribal land under the Native American Development Program. They also developed several financial models and considered collaboration opportunities with Native Americans.”

Join the Renewable Energy Boot Camp

But GSPs are not the only way for students to delve into the world of renewable energy. As part of the curriculum, Vlerick Business School organises annual three-week boot camps in different domains. The first edition of the Energy boot camp, two years ago, focused on the business models of incumbent energy companies in Europe. This year’s edition will be dedicated to renewable energy. Masters students, regardless of their background, who are interested in learning more about the renewable energy sector, are encouraged to join the Renewable Energy Boot Camp. Samson promises it will be well worth their while: “What makes a boot camp so valuable is the fact that it’s all about interactivity: no lectures, but highly interactive sessions with business leaders and experts, and solving and discussing business cases.”

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