10/18/2010 09:47 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Singular Genius of a Simple Solar Lantern

A singular BBC series, "The History of the World in 100 Objects," has grown its way to iconic status in the UK this year. Millions of Brits have tuned in to see each successive object unveiled. The 100th object was revealed last week. It is a solar-powered lamp and charger. This is a very encouraging choice, for those with a mind to read potentially big things into seemingly small developments.

The BBC's justification for including this rather simple object, ahead of other candidates from the early twenty-first century such as the mobile phone, reads as follows: "It's an object that can bring electricity to those who have never had it before, and may point the way towards a more sustainable source of power for all of us in the future."

The immediate significance of the solar lamp is that it provides light at night much less expensively, far more safely, and with significantly less carbon emissions than the main alternative in the developing world, the kerosene lantern. We appreciate this well in the charity I chair, Solar-Aid. In the four African countries where we operate, a solar lamp can save a typical family 20% of its annual income: extra money that can then be spent improving quality of life via schoolbooks, seeds, medicines, and the like. Furthermore, for all who believe that education is pivotal to future human well-being, the lamps provide reliable light at night for homework. Indeed, because they are cheaper than kerosene - and likely to become more so with time as oil prices rise - the lamps can provide light to those who had none even from kerosene. The more that channels of distribution and microcredit can be put in place, the more this solar prosperity-growth factor will accelerate.

The importance of light for education takes many forms. At the individual level, for example, the better-educated the child the better chance of a healthy future and route out of poverty. At the societal level, for example, the correlation between population growth and female literacy is strong.

Solar lighting offers a surprisingly rapid route to social improvement. SolarAid began work in Africa in 2006. We have solar-powered over a hundred schools since then, and already headmasters and headmistresses are reporting improvement in average grades.

Beyond light at night, a solar lamp is a talisman for local energy production at larger scale. Solar power at the community scale enables economic activity of all sorts that diesel and kerosene -- when available, and affordable -- can't. This seems to be the main reason the BBC elected to include this rather humble object in its History of the World in 100 Objects.

Practitioners on the front lines of the solar revolution need no persuasion of the implications beyond light at night in the developing world. My day job is executive chairman of Solarcentury, a European manufacturer and installer of solar rooftiles and other energy-producing elements of buildings, and parent of SolarAid in that we kicked the charity off with the first 5% of our operating profits in 2005. Companies like ours experience on a daily basis the potential of the fast-growing and disruptive solar family of technologies. For example, last month we activated solar-powered roofs on ten zero carbon homes in the UK, the first multi-home development of its kind. These dwellings produce no carbon emissions at all. To express that another way, the homes use no oil, gas, coal, or nuclear whatsoever. They generate more electricity by day than they take out of the grid by day and night both, leaving plenty over to charge a battery car shared by the occupants of the homes. Other renewable technologies provide far more heating than the airtight, triple-glazed, super-efficient homes use.

These two developments, I submit, signpost in microcosm a road to a future that is survivable, sane, and sustainable. The road we are on heads in a very different direction. Take your pick from its status quo routes to economic ruin. Oil depletion is not a comfortable thought in an oil-dependent, nay oil-addicted, just-in-time economy. Alternatively, if we burn away with oil and the other fossil-fuels, greenhouse-related impacts can wipe out improvements in prosperity, as Russian fires and Pakistani floods have shown all too clearly this summer. We can be in denial about either energy security or global warming quite easily, but it is very difficult to deny both. Meanwhile, the simple solar lantern, and the first British zero-carbon multi-homes, tell us about a route to escaping the status-quo routes to ruin.