Bay Area Tech Company Wins California Climate Cup

The winner of the California Climate Cup was announced at the close of last month's Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco.

Solstice Energy Solutions cofounder Ugwem Eneyo at the judging for the California Climate Cup on September 10. Her company won the $25,000 grand prize. Photo by Laura Rudich

By Bill Picture

Published: October, 2018


The winner of the California Climate Cup was announced at the close of last month’s Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco. Competition for the grand prize among the 100 submissions was fierce, but Bay Area-based Solstice Energy Solutions wowed the six-member jury and took home the $25,000 prize.


The company’s technology is a remote energy management platform that allows consumers in developing countries who must derive power from multiple sources to switch between power sources with the tap of an app and to accurately track their energy consumption.


Solstice Energy Solutions co-founder Ugwem Eneyo, whose family is of Nigerian descent, said poor air quality in the west African nation is what spawned the idea for the technology she developed with fellow Stanford graduate Cole Stites-Clayton.

  “My dad is from a region that’s been devastated by the impact of the oil and gas industry,” she said. “We visited frequently and even as a kid, it didn’t make sense to me that my life here in the United States was so drastically different than the lives of my cousins in Nigeria because of energy and climate issues.”


Eneyo said that even middle-class Nigerians living in urban areas can count on only four to six hours of grid-supplied power each day.


“And that power is extremely unreliable,” she said. “People in Nigeria refer to the grid as ‘epileptic’ because it goes on and off throughout the day. You never know when it’s coming on or when it’s going away, which doesn’t allow for any kind of planning. And for that reason, generators end up becoming a primary source of power for anyone who wants or needs a steady source of electricity.”


Until now, a blackout meant sprinting to the generator to manually fire it up, and then remembering to turn the generator off when the grid comes back online. The technology developed by Solstice Energy Solutions allows any homeowner or business owner with a smart phone to switch efficiently between grid and generator power using the Solstice Connect app.


Not the Nigeria you think you know

“When people hear ‘Nigeria,’ they think of low-income people in rural areas and tend to ignore the 70 million people living in urban centers,” Eneyo said. “This demographic that we’re targeting looks more like middle-class America; cell phone penetration within that demographic is almost 100 percent. Think of it this way, a generator costs about $5,000. If they can afford a generator, they can afford a smart phone.”


Eliminating diesel-burning genera-tors altogether and replacing them with clean-energy alternatives like solar is the obvious solution to a shaky power grid and emissions-spewing backup power sources, but Eneyo said there’s a big hurdle standing in the way of this transition.


“The biggest barrier is that you have an energy landscape that’s not monitored,” she said. “There’s a saying, ‘It’s hard to manage what you cannot measure.’”


Eneyo said that without a way to measure energy consumption—less than half of properties have meters—there’s no way to determine what size solar system is right for a home or business. Still, she said that the idea of going solar is an attractive one for Nigerians; but not for the reason you might think.


“Air quality is awful and there’s a measurable public health impact. But convenience, meaning never being without power, is a bigger driver for adoption of clean energy than sustainability is,” Eneyo said. “Oil and gas are all they’ve ever known, so there’s a re-education of consumers that needs to happen.”


She also hopes her technology will help pave the way for a clean energy market in Africa and beyond. “There haven’t been any businesses making clean energy available in a scalable or attractive way because there wasn’t any data available to measure the energy demand,” she said. “We’re trying to help open this market up and support that ecosystem.”


Giving startups a needed hand

“Startups need more opportunities like the California Climate Cup,” Eneyo said. “Beyond the money, the exposure you get is invaluable because potential investors and advisers see you and said, ‘This is a startup that I should be paying attention to.’ It also makes our existing investors feel good to see that an outside thirty party believes in us.”


“The money isn’t nothing, but it’s certainly not enough to make or break a startup, I don’t think,” said Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI) President and CEO Matt Peterson. LACI co-launched the competition over the summer with California Clean Energy Fund. “But the opportunity to get in front of potential investors of this caliber is pretty significant and hard to put a value on.”


“From the beginning, the goal was to showcase California as a continuing leader in the climate change arena,” Peterson said. “I think we did that.”