10/02/2012 09:55 am ET | Updated Dec 02, 2012

Abundance and Problems

We live in an abundant society. The sun provides a tremendous amount of energy -- one kilowatt for every square meter. So how is it that 1.4 billion people don't have electricity, and another 1 billion do not have reliable electricity? Right now, in developing countries, billions of people are dependent on unhealthy, dangerous, expensive, and environmentally toxic fuels (mainly kerosene, but also candles, dung, and wood) in order to enjoy the benefits of light at night -- something most of us take for granted. Kerosene provides poor light, causing eye strain; it is irritating to the lungs and subjects the whole family -- children, pregnant women, the elderly, everyone -- to the equivalent of smoking two packs a day of cigarettes, causing short-term lung congestion and long-term lung disease. No one can make their own kerosene or gather it or grow it. They have to buy it. It is expensive and reduces family income available for other needs, such as health care and education. The environmental effects of a billion open-flame kerosene lamps are immense: Burning kerosene adds tons of soot and greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, which contributes greatly to climate change.

There is a better way. In the past two decades, tremendous advances have been made in lighting, solar cells, and batteries -- essential elements for solar-based lighting. Shuji Nakamura, a professor at University of California Santa Barbara, leads an effort to develop efficient white light LEDs that are 20 times more efficient than incandescent light bulbs. They are small, suitable for mass production with 100,000 LEDs on a wafer, and highly reliable. In the solar generation area, solar cells with efficiencies above 40 percent have now been demonstrated. These two important advances mean that small, lightweight, cost-effective solar lighting is now possible. Simply let the solar cell charge a battery during the day, and use the battery to drive the LED at night. For the cost of one or two months of kerosene, we can provide a safe, healthy reading light using one LED, one rechargeable double-A battery and a small, handheld solar cell. With a day's worth of charging, a family can use it for an evening, over and over again.

What does this mean? Education, adult literacy, and health, among other things. Educating these children is the key to their future and to that of their countries, to improving health, reducing runaway population growth, and providing an ongoing better quality of life. We got started on this project at the request of Dr. Osei Darkwa, who sees firsthand the impact of lighting on reading skills and learning ability at his university in Ghana. Solving this problem is just one project at the Institute for Energy Efficiency at UC Santa Barbara, but its wider focus is improving the efficiency of a wide variety of technologies, not just lighting and solar cells, but also buildings, automobiles, and better waste heat recovery. The nonprofit Unite to Light exists to transition some of these technologies into improvements in society. We have now sent 23,000 solar-powered lights to 51 countries and other companies and organizations are pursuing the same goals. Invention and technology can be used to solve problems and create a better lifestyle for those who need it most. This is more important now than ever before. Consumption of our scarce resources is causing economic, climate and societal stress. There is a better way. Help us light the world.