Solar powered lanterns show the potential of green business in action

It’s a useful tale of green business married to social enterprise. For those who would take it a step further, it’s a fantastic example of the integrated bottom line (or triple bottom line) at work.

Read the original article at the International Herald Tribune

The problem: there are over 7 billion people around the world and counting, 1.3 billion of whom live without any electricity at all. Add that to the 1.4 billion who live without reliable electricity supplies and you’ve got a whopping 2.7 billion (that’s billion with a b) that can’t count on modern artificial lighting when it gets dark outside. That’s more than 1 in every 3 people worldwide, the vast majority living in developing countries.

Given the sheer magnitude of this challenge, most of the solutions currently available require a lot of money and a lot of conventional energy: by the World Bank’s estimate, it would cost anywhere between 30 and 40 billion each year between now and 2030 to bring reliable power to those currently lacking it.  That figure doesn’t take into account the hundreds of thousands of miles of transmission infrastructure needed, or the fact that grid electricity is still dominated by fossil fuels.  On a more troubling level, it falsely characterizes the solution to the problem as one of charity, worthy though it may be, rather than one of opportunity.

Two Stanford business school students flipped the model on its head, creating a solar-powered lantern that undersells both coal and kerosene, the cheapest respective on and off-grid power alternatives.  It’s a win-win-win situation: d.light, the company that the two students created, makes money selling its lanterns.  Albeit a fraction of those still in the dark, as many as 10 million more people around the world now have access to reliable nighttime light.  And since the lamps can recharge with the sun’s energy during the day, they’re durable, require no upkeep or extra supplies, and burn no fossil fuels.

But more important than the specific impact is the story there is to be told here.  One of the many challenges of our time is how to help people around the world achieve a rising living standard without further overheating an already overheated planet.  The 1 in 3 statistic about electricity only drives the point home: if a third of the world’s people lack something as basic to the developed world as reliable electric power, and the earth under a baseline scenario is already warming to a dangerous level (which it is), how can the world support the material needs of another nearly 3 billion people without putting our living environment under even greater stress?

The answer is that we can’t, unless we reinvent ourselves.  Which is exactly what d.light is doing, albeit on a small scale, with its solar powered lamps.  The promise of green business, then, is simple: how do we turn the world’s challenges into an opportunity to create and sustain new sources of livelihood?  And how can we find new ways of providing for basic modern needs (like light) where conventional cornerstones (like the current global power grid) fail us?

One of the things I really like about d.light is how it shows solar’s “portability.”  Unlike most sources of conventional energy, solar can be produced and consumed in the same place, which is what makes the company’s lanterns so practical.  Last week C’cracy founder Libby Murphy and I were having a conversation about how this essential fact about solar power could make it advantageous to set up a more local power grid system, since theoretically any network of home-based solar installations can serve as its own “grid.”  What d.light has done is take this down to an even more micro level, using the primary source of all life on earth to power lights that require no outside inputs at all.

What will be the next d.light, then?  How will the company build on its solid start?  And how can the most elemental process of business planning (problem, solution, way to make a profit) be applied to other challenges in the world?

If I had all the answers I’d be a much wealthier man.  In this case, however, the questions may be just as important.