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Clean Energy at the Bottom of the Pyramid
Sam Goldman
Tuesday, February 1, 2011
Every evening when the sun sets, over 1.6 billion people around the world, 350 million of whom are in India, are plunged into utter darkness. They light kerosene lanterns and candles in order to continue with their activities, but everything—studying, housework, work in the fields, even socializing—is challenging with a light source that is over 100 times dimmer than an incandescent bulb.

In addition to being ineffectual, fuel-based lighting sources such as kerosene can be surprisingly expensive. Households in Africa may pay up to 30 percent of their monthly income for kerosene oil. And kerosene is also dangerous: Indoor air pollution from burning kerosene and wood for cooking claims the lives of 1.5 million people annually and leads to severe respiratory infections. Fires caused by open flames also lead to hundreds of thousands of burns and fatalities. In addition, every kerosene lantern emits at least 1 ton of CO2 over five years.

Lighting is only one of the many challenges that off-grid families face. While the deep penetration of mobile phones into rural markets in Asia and Africa has accelerated connectivity to unprecedented levels, the lack of electricity to charge these mobile phones hampers the true potential of mobile technology in rural areas. In Africa, individuals may need to walk several kilometers to reach a charging station, the services of which are not only costly but may actually lead to the theft of phone batteries and precious pre-purchased minutes.

Therefore, for poor rural families, lack of electricity equals lack of access to technology that will improve their quality of life. In fact, the United Nations’ Human Development Report 2010 uses lack of electricity as one of the top ten indicators of poverty. In other words, providing energy for off-grid families gives them much more than lighting or mobile charging options; it actually opens up a path out of poverty.

For years, the assumed solution was to wait for governments to extend the electricity infrastructure to remote areas. Many governments have ambitious plans to do just that, including in India. The reality is that, even under the best of circumstances, it will likely take decades to reach full electrification; in high-population-growth countries, even the most ambitious of electrification plans will be far outstripped by burgeoning populations.

And what if the governments of developing countries do succeed in building out the electricity grid to the most remote villages? It may create an entirely new set of problems, due to the skyrocketing demand for energy that will require more fossil fuels than our planet can provide or sustain.

In the twenty-first century, is this really the best we can do? With our wealth of technology and innovative thinking, there has to be another option.

d.light design, the social enterprise that I co-founded with my business partner Ned Tozun, aims to bring electricity to households in developing countries now. Our company develops and sells highly durable and affordable solar-powered consumer products designed especially for rural families. We began selling a product line of solar-powered LED lanterns in June 2008, and have since expanded the line to include d.light S10, one of the most affordable solar lanterns, and d.light S250, a premium solar lantern with a mobile phone charging feature.

In less than three years, with our solar lanterns we have been able to change the lives of over two million people in 40 countries. As a result of having bright, reliable lighting, and being free from reliance on kerosene oil, our customers will cumulatively save about USD60 over the lifetime of the products. Resulting increased productivity will put another USD65 million into the pockets of these poor rural families. And the environment benefits too: Our products sold thus far will reduce carbon emissions by at least 82,000 tons.

d.light is only one actor among a growing field of enterprises, NGOs and development agencies that are addressing energy needs in the developing world. We all recognize that it benefits no one—from an economic, environmental or even social justice perspective—to wait for the electricity grid. According to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories, burning fuels like kerosene oil are the primary source of greenhouse gas emissions in the developing world. Moving hundreds of millions of households from kerosene to coal cannot in good conscious be celebrated as sustainable progress.

So a new vision is emerging in which entire populations leapfrog over the electricity grid altogether to environmentally sustainable energy solutions. While clean technology is often discussed in the context of highly polluting developed nations like the United States and the United Kingdom, it is in fact a key solution—and perhaps the only sustainable one—to meeting energy needs in emerging markets as well.

In developing nations, where large-scale solutions like solar or windmill farms are too costly and dependent on incomplete infrastructure for dissemination, this turns energy into a decentralized business. The advantages are clear: Without the need for expansive infrastructure, the spread of the technology can take place much more efficiently; when broken down into smaller units, the technology becomes more affordable for populations with extremely limited incomes. Just as mobile phones made phone lines obsolete throughout rural Asia and Africa, so small-scale energy solutions like d.light’s solar lanterns can and will render the electric grid unnecessary.

The market is particularly ripe for solar-powered solutions. Solar is a natural choice for regions that receive abundant sunshine nearly year-round, and the falling cost of solar cells is bringing this technology to a price point that more and more can afford.
The great opportunity is that poor rural households may in fact be even more ready to adopt clean energy solutions than their more affluent counterparts. For them, the alternatives to relying on solar-powered products are decidedly dreadful, with affordability being the main barrier to adoption.

There is still quite a bit more work to be done, of course, in developing new technologies and innovative distribution models, as well as reducing costs such that even the poorest of rural families can experience the higher standard of living that energy access brings. But d.light is committed, just as many of our colleagues in this space are, to ensuring that renewable energy becomes an option that everyone can afford.

At d.light, we like to imagine a world in which the poorest families in the world are using the cleanest energy solutions in existence. I believe this is entirely possible. Best of all, it is a world in which life will be better for all of us.

Author is the CEO of d.light design
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