Friday, August 04, 2006

Lighting up the world

The house was made of adobe mud, the land around it high altitude Bolivian desert. From all I'd seen in previous days, the owner likely eked out a very subsistence existence.

But on a pole poking out of the roof I could see a photovoltaic solar panel.


solar1To say I was surprised is an understatement. I'd been driving for several days with the Land Rover G4 Challenge up to the poorest and most remote parts of this country, and by now I was accustomed to the vast gap between the high-tech cars we were in and the general level of development of the areas we had passed through after leaving the more modern towns.

Like many emerging countries, the cities and main towns of Bolivia are very into the 21st century. But it doesn't take too many kilometres to travel back hundreds of years in terms of living standards and quality of life.

After spotting that first solar cell, I came across a village where at least every other house had a similar installation.

Clearly such cells couldn't provide anything more than small levels of electricity. I learned that they actually charged batteries during the day to power lights when night fell.

What I didn't find out until I returned to Ireland was that I'd stumbled across the results of an idea which one man had while trekking in Nepal in 1997.

Many of us are hit by ideas in various circumstances, but Dr Dave Irvine-Halliday had the vision, the expertise, and the conviction to see his through.

As a result, more than 100,000 people through the poorest parts of Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America now have light in their homes today.

Affordable light. Light that doesn't pollute the environment. And light that helps give families a chance to study their way out of poverty.

Irvine-Halliday's moment of truth happened at a small school in Nepal, which had a sign outside asking foreign travellers to come in and teach something.

As a teacher of Electrical Engineering at the University of Calgary, it was a sign he couldn't ignore.

But he was immediately struck by how dark it was inside the school. He realised that any education provided there was going to be drastically limited by the availability of lighting.

However generated, energy for light costs money. In most places outside the electricity grid, it comes expensively from fuels like kerosene, either in smelly and flickering individual lights or for powering generators to light electric bulbs.

And the poverty paradox is that those who have to spend the most on power and light are always the ones who can least afford it.

Irvine-Halliday's speciality was in light technology, particularly in how it can be used in measurement systems in healthcare and geology. But after he returned to Calgary he used his spare time, all his family savings, and reportedly maxed his credit cards, to develop an affordable lighting system using white light emitting diodes (WLEDs) and a pedal-operated charger to power their batteries.

In 1999 he and his wife Jenny and their son Gregor went back to Nepal to install the first trial units. A year later four full villages were equipped with the systems.

Today, through the Light Up The World Foundation he set up, Irvine-Halliday's dream has already been realised in 26 countries and at least 14,000 third world homes.

A full village can have lighting for the same amount of electric power required to run a standard 100W bulb in the western world.

The running costs of a typical WLED setup are seventy times cheaper than those of a single kerosene lamp, and provide illumination that is seven times better. And it doesn't have the kerosene downsides of smell, health dangers, and global warming considerations.

The systems are powered in eco-friendly ways. The original 'people pedal power' generators have been joined by small locally-built microhydroelectric and wind power options, as well as the electrical solar cells I came across in Bolivia.

The use of LED technology is as yet untapped for most lighting needs in the west, so the Canadian professor's idea has reversed the normal thrust of technology implementation.

In one way that makes sense. The LUTW concept doesn't envisage 'a light in every room' as we're used to in the developed world. Illumination of one main living room is usually adequate in the small homes of the areas where LUTW is concentrating.

Sometimes they come up trumps in emergency situations. LUTW provided 2,000 WLED lighting systems to Sri Lanka in the immediate aftermath of the 2004 tsunami disaster.

And as the idea develops at an ever accelerating rate, it means that less power stations need to be built to meet the growing demand for light in developing countries. Fewer power stations to build means financial resources available for more pressing needs. And also trims the global warming emissions from those growing countries.

Eventually, that concept brought back to the western world could mean that some of our most polluting power stations could be shut down altogether.

LUTW's efforts are supported by various individuals, NGOs, and corporations, including manufacturers of WLEDs. The organisation is also a member of the UN Global Village Energy Programme.

The cost of providing a typical WLED light system under the programme is now as little as $60 per home. Still not an inconsiderate amount in countries where the annual per capita income might be as little as $300. And it is estimated that a third of the world's population has no access to adequate and affordable light systems.

But it is part of the organisation's mission to facilitate the production of the systems in the countries where they are used. Thus sustainable jobs are provided as well as light.

In recent years Professor Dave Irvine-Halliday has been given numerous awards to mark what his dream has achieved. These include a 2002 Rolex Laureate which was worth $100,000 and which was used to restructure LUTW. He was also the Canadian Hero of the Year award recipient from the 'Reader's Digest' in 2004.

But just now maybe he's happy to be able to use his personal credit cards again.

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