LAUSANNE, Switzerland — For the 1.3 million people living without access to electricity, providing light to their homes is a constant struggle. These people must pay a much larger proportion of their incomes than wealthier nations for energy, and they also suffer from more health problems.
Consistent energy sources are necessary for getting clean water and powering adequate healthcare and transportation. People without electricity often turn to fuel sources like firewood, candles and hydrocarbons, such as kerosene, but these are insufficient light solutions.
These sources are dirty, toxic and expensive. Kerosene specifically poses a major health risk. The oil can set homes on fire, cause burns and is sometimes accidentally ingested by curious children. Indoor air pollution is also a major problem and kerosene is a major contributor. It is also possible that it contributes to an increase in cataracts and tuberculosis.
According to the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology in Lausanne, at three dollars a week, kerosene can cost up to 20 percent of a family’s income. It also results in the same amount of pollution as smoking 40 cigarettes a day.
The debate among those working to end this energy deprivation is on-grid versus off-grid solutions. Innovative solutions often end up being less cost-effective, even though they are interesting and may have less of an environmental impact.
There are off-grid possibilities that could be both cheap and efficient, however. Three groups are currently working on products that fit both of those categories with a plan to market them to the public as soon as possible.
One organization is LEDsafari, based out of Switzerland. The group teaches communities how to build their own solar-powered LED lights, which only cost around two dollars. The two-dollar devices last for three months, compared to two dollars’ worth of kerosene, which can last for a week. Six hours taking in sunlight can equal up to five hours of power a night.
The young design team wanted to make sure there were no superfluous parts and that they could easily teach people how to assemble the devices. The parts they supply are an LED bulb, a wire, a switch, a rechargeable cellphone battery and a solar photovoltaic panel. The only additional part needed is a plastic bottle, something that is easy to find in most communities. By leaving out the casing, LEDsafari cuts down on production costs and helps repurpose existing waste.
The organization is working to raise more awareness about their product by having travelers teach workshops around the world. These workshops last only three days and over 200 people in India, Kenya and Tanzania have already received training in how to assemble and repair the devices. The designers are also working on making the devices last longer.
Another off-grid product is Infinite Light, designed by a Turkey-based organization called Designnobis. This is also a solar-powered light, similar to the LEDsafari lamp.
The Infinite Light uses a flexible solar panel, batteries and a plastic bottle, which is not supplied. The package includes a handle, so they can be easily carried or hung. Unlike LEDsafari’s product, the Infinite Light is sold completely assembled.
The product won the 2013 Green Dot Award, which awards innovations that are environmentally friendly. It is still in the development stage, but the organization is looking to crowdfunding to make sure it becomes marketable.
A different approach to cheap lighting is the Gravity Light. The product is a response to the international organization Solar Aid’s challenge to create a substitute for solar lamps that costs less than six dollars.
The Gravity Light can be produced for less than this amount, running on the energy produced by gravitational force. Taking a few seconds to lift an object provides 25 minutes of light, and this process can be repeated for years.
There is no cost to run it, and compared with kerosene, which costs 120-600 dollars for five years of use, it is much cheaper. It is even cheaper than many solar options.
Unlike solar power, it is also not dependent on good weather or geographical locations that receive higher amounts of sunlight. The work involved is minimal, unlike crank-based devices, so with a small effort the Gravity Light can power radios, reading lights and other small devices.
This product, too, is still in development, but the developers are working to bring costs down further and to improve their efficiency. They hope the device will be able to charge cell phones and larger devices in the future.
While the United States looks to energize Africa, there are smaller, off-grid solutions that can provide answers, as well.
– Monica Roth