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Mosaic, BigBelly Solar Awarded Grants for "Powerful Answers"

Two firms advancing renewable energy applications are in the spotlight this week at the CES consumer tech show in Las Vegas, one of the tech world's biggest venues, receiving grants from U.S. telecommunications company Verizon to further bring their ideas and strategies to the masses.

Last year Verizon launched a program dubbed "Powerful Answers" to seek the most compelling applications of various networking and cloud technologies to promote social benefits and solve problems in three categories: education, healthcare, and sustainability. More than 1,300 entries were submitted, and ten finalists were chosen for each category and ranked by judges.

This Wednesday afternoon, Verizon named all the Powerful Answers winners who will receive grants from $285,000 up to $1 million to turn their ideas into reality. The two "sustainability" winners with renewable energy ties are:

Mosaic: First place, $1 million. We've been tracking Mosaic since their launch one year ago; they've been at the edge of the crowdfunding movement, offering a way for the solar energy industry to tap into vast low-cost capital for commercial- and multi-residential solar energy installations. The company claims it has crowdsourced nearly $6.6 million for 20 solar projects, with 2,500 investors across the U.S., offering annual yields ranging from 4.5-7.0 percent.

With this Verizon grant, Mosaic plans to shift its gaze beyond U.S. borders into developing regions, seeking both off-grid and micro/minigrid projects that will help an estimated 1.4 million people who can't access electricity, and connect investors to those projects. The company already is "in discussions" with developers in sub-Saharan Africa, Brazil, India, and Southeast Asia, with Africa as its first foray. Specific risk levels, yields, or tenor aren't yet calculable, stressed a company rep, but these projects could present higher risk/returns than Mosaic's existing U.S.-based portfolio.

The first step is to develop a mobile app to enable Mosaic investors to use the platform, to invest in U.S. projects and eventually internationally. Meanwhile the company is seeking to partner with solar developers in developing nations to provide financing for systems, and pulling together "a small team" to craft a new international loan product, taking into account extra variables such as currency exchanges and political stability . On the other end of the solar transaction model, users' electricity payments will be available via mobile phones in a pay-as-you-go model, though the Mosaic rep said it's "too early to say" what the company's role will be in that end of the transaction. (Text messaging, mobile payments, and mobile apps are the core of it all, thus Verizon's interest and support.)

This combined support for clean-energy infrastructure is where Mosaic sees big needs can be matched with big money: an estimated $15 billion market for solar micro/mini-grids, a projected $3 trillion investment pool seeking socially responsible assets, and a crowdfunding sector that saw roughly $5 billion in activity last year.

On-stage at CES for a Q&A, Mosaic CEO Dan Rosen also revealed that the company is expanding beyond its current portfolio of commercial and municipal sites, and is developing a residential loan offering to let people buy a solar system on their home. "We think that could be a massive opportunity," he said, pointing out that widespread solar energy proliferation depends upon projects of all sizes, so he wants Mosaic to "be a full-service solution" for both solar developers and consumers.

BigBelly Solar: Fourth place, $500,000. Mosaic wasn't the only solar-friendly company getting a nod, and a fat check, from Verizon at CES. BigBelly Solar started nine years ago with their solar-powered trash compactors that wirelessly notify administrators and building operators when full.  They claim a customer roster exceeding 1,000 organizations, ranging from a ski resort (its first customer) to mining camps, universities, municipalities, malls, and transit agencies. A solar panel (6-30 W depending on model) on the unit charges an internal battery that powers all of the capabilities from compaction to wireless communications; the company claims the units can function for three days without sunlight. The value proposition:

  • More efficient resource allocation (less physical monitoring and emptying of bins)
  • Smarter and cheaper scheduling of waste collection ($25-$50 average annual maintenance for the units vs. waste-management contractors that typically charge per pick-up)
  • Added potential for single-stream recycling
  • Better transparency and efficiency for what the company pegs as a $13 billion industry

Responding to audience questions at CES, Verizon's chairman/CEO Lowell McAdam emphasized his company isn't taking any ownership stake in any of the grant recipients. "The IPR [intellectual property rights] is theirs," he said; "our offer is to help them any way we can to commercialize their products." Over the next 30 days the company will start evaluating input from the inaugural crop of winners and applicants to shape the criteria for its next round of Powerful Answer grants.

Lead image: Hand thumbs up emblem for best of the best, via Shutterstock

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