Energy freedom was the theme of the night at the 2017 Bright Award for Environmental Sustainability event, with disruption of the energy sector at the heart of the work of this year’s honorees, Andrij and Roman Zinchenko, co-founders of Greencubator, one of the first energy innovations networks in Ukraine. The brothers traveled to Stanford Law School for the November 9 event to accept the award and participate in a panel discussion “Democratizing Energy: Building Sustainability from the Ground Up,” moderated by Greg Dalton, host of the environmental radio show Climate One.

“It’s a recognition of the joint efforts of community—of volunteering, of believing, and of moving things forward together to greener and sustainable ways,” said Roman, as he and his brother Andrij accepted the award, presented to them by M. Elizabeth Magill, Richard E. Lang Professor of Law and Dean of Stanford Law School.

“The Zinchenko brothers were selected for their pioneering thinking and their willingness to tackle critical energy issues in Ukraine, basically from scratch,” said Magill.

The award, which comes with a $100,000 cash prize, has a distinctly global component, with winners chosen from one of ten global regions each year. It was made possible by a gift to Stanford Law School from lifelong conservationist Ray Bright, JD ’59, and his wife Marcelle.

Magill shared with the audience that Ray Bright’s passion for the environment could be traced back to his childhood when he spent countless hours outdoors with his father, who was a park ranger at Mount Rainier National Park.

“Ray was a successful lawyer and wanted to give back by helping to conserve the environment he loved for future generations. In establishing the Bright Award, Ray sought to recognize people from around the world who are engaged in conservation and other efforts aimed at achieving sustainability. He hoped that the recipients would have an even larger influence after receiving the award,”  she said.

Buzz Thompson, Robert E. Paradise Professor in Natural Resources Law and senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, who leads the nominating committee for each year’s award recipient, said that they review hundreds of potential award winners each year. Critical to those that stand out, he said, is not only current impact, but also the ability of winners to inspire others and to carry their work forward.  Before sitting down for the panel discussion, the brothers laid out their plans to do just that.

Already recognized leaders for their innovative, local-centric, accelerator of green technology in Ukraine, the brothers announced that they will put most of the award toward the establishment of a new green innovation center, powered primarily by solar, to showcase green tech innovators and to encourage more people to work in the area. The two also plan to continue working with state regulators to expand energy democracy. Andrij highlighted the significance of a law school hosting this energy sustainability award, pointing to the need for laws and regulations in the energy sector to dramatically change in order for innovation in energy to really take hold.

“We are working in the sphere where the rules of the game are badly outdated. Innovators and engineers, with whom we work, have advanced energy technology so far. The year that we started Greencubator, the price of solar was $5 for 1 watt. Now it’s less than 50 cents, so it dropped tenfold. But the regulations have barely changed,” he said.

Andrij called on lawyers to join them in disrupting the energy sector. “I think it’s a big task for the new generation of lawyers to devise rules that are different. They need to match and be as great as the mindset of those people who develop the technology. Innovations in technology are great, but in regulation they are few,” he said, noting that the anti-competition monopoly in energy was a big barrier to innovation.

The topic was taken up in the panel discussion, where Andrij and Roman were joined by Laura Hattendorf, lecturer in management at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, and Arun Majumdar, professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford. Hattendorf heads up investments at Mulago Foundation and is an expert in international nonprofits and social innovation. Majumdar, co-director of Stanford’s Precourt Institute for Energy, served as the director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (APRA-E), and was the Acting Under Secretary of Energy in the Obama administration.

Dalton asked Majumdar about the importance of connecting with people’s hearts to drive change.

“Oftentimes we think of innovation as technology and engineering, but this is social innovation that is going on,” said Majumdar. He drew a comparison of today’s move to energy freedom with Gandhi’s idea of nonviolent revolution in the 20th century. “It was a paradigm shift—people didn’t know that you could transfer power in a nonviolent way before then,” he said.

“In the 21st century, access to energy is a human right. If you do not have access to energy you are imprisoned in the stratum of society that you will remain in and cannot catch up. And that change of thinking, of paradigm, of a social movement, is absolutely critical,” he continued. “We can do all the Paris Agreements and all the technology changes that Exxon or GE may have, but at the end of the day, what is it for? It’s for the people. And the people need to rise up from the bottom and say, ‘this is what I want.’ ”

“We are coming from a country that was struck by communism and currently is fighting Soviet nationalism, because the fight we’re having is with a country that is led by a concept of empire,” Roman said. He shared with the audience the degree of central control of the energy sector in Ukraine, where the state turns the heat on for everyone at the same time.

“So, fighting paternalistic thinking, fighting the disempowered approach, fighting learned helplessness should be an important part of the policy agenda.”

Andrij said that while many people in his country are willing to move to green and sustainable energy—even those entrenched in the oil industry—state regulation is thwarting progress. He highlighted the point by sharing a current Greencubator project with one Ukrainian city that is trying to transform from a major nuclear production center to a renewable energy center.

“If the coal museum in Kentucky is putting solar panels on its roof, a shift is coming,” said Majumdar. “The grid won’t go away, but I think we’ll find a hybridization. It’s a ten trillion dollar a year industry, the biggest industry, the mother of all industry. And it’s at a tipping point of change.”

And much of the innovation in energy is being developed with and for people who are off the power grid. Majumdar explained 300 million people in India and 400 million in Africa do not have access to the grid.  And earlier challenges for that market are quickly falling away.

“We hadn’t looked at energy because it’s very difficult to get it to very poor people. But a few years ago several things happened in this market that made us look again,” explained Hattendorf of Mulago’s investments in energy innovations in Africa and India. She pointed to inroads that have been made recently to bring power to the world’s poorest people, including advances in lighting with LED and sharp declines in solar panel costs and mobile payments.

Dalton closed out the discussion by asking Andrij and Roman Zinchenko about their vision, saying, “You guys are not shy about thinking big.”

“I would think small here,” Andrij said, pointing to the move from mainframes to PCs in the computer industry. “There is an environment where there is a place for big data farms and small computers. In ten years, I want the same to happen in energy. All kinds of players, all kinds of business models, all kinds of freedoms to flourish here, in Ukraine, and in Africa.”