National Geographic's energy innovators aren't waiting for governments to tackle the fact that 1.3 billion people live without power. They're lighting the way themselves, and not always for the reasons you'd think. In our series Lit Up, they share lessons and inspiration that go far beyond solar panels and light bulbs. Their quotes have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Seven years ago, Daniel Schnitzer got an e-mail from a stranger that would change many lives. A Haitian-born man living in the U.S. wrote him for help in building a wind turbine to power streetlights in his town back home.
Schnitzer, who was working as an energy consultant, knew about making a turbine from scratch. He'd done it in college (for "fun") and wrote a blog about it. This man's notion, though...
This was not a good idea at all. But I wrote back, because even though I was working in the U.S. electricity sector, I always knew that career-wise I wanted to work on energy in developing countries. I wrote back and said, look, I'd love to help out, but maybe we should think about this a little bit more.
He found solar streetlights made in China, but lighting the town with them would have cost about a million dollars.
There was sort of this "aha" moment of, wait a minute: If some organization was actually to go out and raise a million dollars to buy these streetlights for this town, is that really the best use of a million dollars for this town that has no sanitation, no energy, who knows what else?
I developed a survey tool and took two weeks off from work, took vacation, and went down to Haiti [to the southwestern town Les Anglais]. I had a survey of 10 energy projects or products: What would you want to have access to? I asked them to pick two.
By the end of 2008 I had made two trips and spent about four weeks there, so, all of my vacation time. We had fielded about 250 surveys. Seventy percent of the choices were, I want lighting for my home.
Starting with a $25,000 donation from Frontier Utilities, a Texas-based retail electricity provider, Schnitzer founded EarthSpark and began importing and selling solar-powered lamps in Haiti. Preparing to go to grad school in 2010, he brought on Allison Archambault, who is now the group's president.
In addition to the lamps, they began selling solar home systems. EarthSpark eventually built Haiti's first solar microgrid, which switched on in 2015 and serves 430 homes and businesses in Les Anglais.
Archambault: The first watt is the most meaningful. If you get reliable, affordable electricity into your house, you don't have to be burnt smelling the kerosene. A lot of people will talk about how when they got the grid, they could see better at night. Their eyes weren't burning. Everybody talks about how their kids don't have tears when they're trying to study because they're not leaning over the smoky, dirty light.
People will be able to do a lot more now that they have a higher level access to electricity.
Those solar lights are life-changing tools that are really important—but most people in the world aspire to something more than a solar light. They would like a level of electricity that can turn a motor, that could run refrigeration, that can really unlock the economic potential of what electricity can bring. That usually doesn't come with a small scale standalone solar system. That is grid electricity.
2010 was also the year that a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck near the capital Port-au-Prince, killing an estimated 220,000.
Schnitzer: It was a very clear-cut decision to stop working on the business model and really just focus on the relief effort in the year after the earthquake.
Then transitioning back, a lot of thinkers in the development space recognized this need for a transition from relief to reconstruction. Being a member of the Clinton Global Initiative really helped inform that view.
Bill Clinton had this phrase, "build Haiti back better." That helped change the mindset, not only for us, but for other organizations, to shift more from a relief role—when it's needed most, you simply give services away, and that doesn't have to be sustainable.
But for these more systemic longer-term problems, relief and aid doesn't work. It's about building something sustainable, and that's basically a business. That transition started happening about a year after the earthquake.
Always be questioning what your ideas are. Because you're probably wrong.
EarthSpark has committed to building 80 microgrids in Haiti by the end of 2020.
Schnitzer: Find heroes and do your homework.
Take a step back. Look at the fundamental questions in this area. Really study it and become a subject matter expert on it. Bring those things to bear on whatever your idea is, and always be questioning what your ideas are. Because you're probably wrong. At least the first time around, or the first five times around, you're probably wrong.
Archambault: Work with excellent people for the right reasons and learn to suffer delays and defeat in stride with a good sense of humor.
Schnitzer: My mom—she was a teacher—just always impressed upon me that I was in a privileged position and that it was sort of my duty to use whatever talents I had to help other people in need.
Archambault: The idea that people are living without access to clean water and electricity, when we know that that is so important to people's ability to achieve what they want to in their lives, is deeply unjust. It's not a Haitian problem. It's a human problem.
Our laser focus is on getting these grids built.