February 5, 2013

Small Solar Light Company Wins World’s Largest Energy Prize


Story by Karyn Boenker Contributor

Imagine  that you live in a rural village in the developing world, far from the towering presence of skyscrapers which fill many of the world’s cities. You have no electricity, no supermarkets, no universities, and no public utilities.

You work hard everyday to provide your family with food, water, and an education. Life depends on local agriculture, livestock (maybe a goat), wood burning stoves, and kerosene lanterns. It is a simple, but difficult way to exist.

One evening, you cook dinner under the pale light of a small kerosene lantern you are sharing with your daughter or son while they complete the day’s homework. Suddenly, in a flash, a fire erupts in your home and you lose everything.

You and your family survive, but not without painful burns. Your home is gone and you fear that your village will go with it as you watch your life turn to ash. This is the story of too many people living in the developing world.


The solution is simple and has an impact greater than you can imagine. Small solar technologies in the form of durable solar lights can eliminate the need for kerosene lanterns.

Fortunately, major philanthropic entities are joining the effort to help solve this problem by supporting for-profit entities like d.light design.

On January 15th, d.light won $1.5 million through the highly competitive Zayed Future Energy Prize, the world’s largest annual award in the renewable energy and sustainability sector.

d.lights are special because they are powerful, long lasting, maintenance free, and virtually unbreakable.

The award was given to d.light in recognition of their innovative talents. The funds will help d.light expand their work,  innovate and develop their products. It will also contribute to marketing campaigns and distribution efforts. Although, the details are in discussion.

“This past October, we reached a major milestone, empowering 10 million lives with our solar lanterns in over 40 countries around the world. With this prize, we’re poised to accelerate our reach,” d.light Chairmen and CEO Donn Tice commented in a press release. “This is not just a win for d.light, but for everyone without access to reliable grid power.”

Recently, a study out of Brown University estimated that replacing kerosene lanterns with solar lights reduces the risk of fire by 70% and burn injuries by 80%.

Small solar lights address major respiratory health concerns posed by kerosene lanterns, which are associated with poor indoor air quality and at least 1.5 million deaths each year – mostly women and children.

On top of that, a recent study performed by researchers at UC Berkeley found that black carbon produced by kerosene lanterns is 20x worse than previously thought, making it a major contributor to climate change.

“Getting rid of kerosene lamps may seem like a small, inconsequential step to take, but when considering the collective impact of hundreds of millions of households, it’s a simple move that affects the planet,” said study lead author Nicholas Lam, a UC Berkeley graduate student in environmental health sciences.



Cooking by d.light.
Photo: d.light

In 2004, while serving a term with the Peace Corps in Benin, Africa d.light co-founder Sam Goldman witnessed an event not unlike that described above. An overturned kerosene lantern and resulting fire left a neighbor’s son badly burned.

Goldman’s life path changed course that day, sending him on a mission to serve the other 2.3 million people living on the planet without electricity (again, most of which are women and children).

While pursuing a MBA at Stanford University, Goldman met co-founder Ned Tozen. Together, they created a prototype for their first small solar lantern and d.light was born.

As a for-profit social enterprise, d.light is changing the world of humanitarian aid. Partnerships with equally unique non-profit organizations like Kopernik – recently recognized by the Clinton Global Initiative – display their impact.

As the old saying goes, “Give a man a fish and feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime.” When Kopernik and d.light come together they don’t just give away lifesaving  d.lights, they also employ locals, called ‘tech agents,’ to sell them at a rate subsidized by donations.

“d.lights are consistently the most popular technology on our side,” Kopernik Co-Founder and COO Ewa Wojkowska told

“When people see a d.light they instantly get it and they immediately understand and see the benefits they are going to get. Both in replacing dirty, dangerous, and expensive kerosene light, as well as the economic benefits. In Timor-Leste people are spending $14/month on kerosene, which is a huge amount for a family that is living on about a $1 a day.”

Approximately 200-350 million people use kerosene lanterns throughout the world. By 2020, d.light aims to reach 100 million people. With eight years of work and additional support from the Zayed Future Energy Prize, d.light is already off to a running start.

Small solar lights have myriad uses throughout the world. Photo: d.light

Small solar lights have myriad uses throughout the world.
Photo: ©d.light design


Large scale solar panels are a great way for individuals in the United States to try and address global energy problems in their own home. However, prices per watt remain higher than traditional sources like coal and petroleum.

The US solar industry predicts that with moderate government assistance the price per watt of solar power can meet the $1/watt price of coal by 2016. Yet, three years is a long time to ask the world to wait.

Small solar on the other hand is already affordable. For as little as $14, individuals can purchase d.light S2 models for myriad uses in and outside the home. For more, camping enthusiasts and outdoor adventurers alike can purchase a d.light S300 that comes equipped with a charging station for cell phones and other small devices.


d.lights are special because they are powerful, long lasting, maintenance free, and virtually unbreakable.

d.lights are special because they are powerful, long lasting, maintenance free, and virtually unbreakable. Photo: ©d.light design

Full disclosure: I was recently hired as a fellow working for Kopernik and d.light to bring small solar lights to motivated students living without electricity on Atauro Island, Timor-Leste. I plan to continue discussing my project right here on, giving readers a view inside the world of humanitarian aid. For now, you can read more about my project on Kopernik’s donation page.

If you are interested in supporting other projects that contribute to the small solar revolution you should explore the Kopernik website. Additionally, you can purchase a d.light directly from the company, who donates 10% of their profits to projects in the developing world.

For-profit companies around the world would be wise to take notice of d.light’s business model. After being recognized for innovation by the Zayed Future Energy Prize it is clear that companies like d.light are leading humanity out of the dark and into the light.

Photo (Featured Image): A family gathers around their d.light,  purchased at a discount from a neighbor through support from Kopernik and d.light campaigns. Photo Courtesy of ©d.light design

About the Author

Karyn Boenker
Karyn Boenker, MS, is a freelance journalist and environmental scientist. She writes human interest stories while traveling the world and enjoys communicating scientific topics with a touch of humor.