A transformative lighting project

The 2016 St Andrews Prize for the Environment was won by a technologically and socially innovative approach to lighting for off-grid communities that could transform the lives of millions.

According to Wikipedia, ‘living off the grid’ is a lifestyle choice for rich country drop-outs. However, according to the International Energy Agency, about a quarter of the world’s people, are considered ‘energy poor’ because they do not have access to electricity, not through choice, but because of lack of hook up to a transmission grid. Either their country does not have one, or, as in the case of the Amazon region of Brazil, it doesn’t reach to where you live.

This year’s St Andrews Prize for the Environment went to an ingenious development of an already original idea, that has the potential to bring light during the day (into dark houses) and at night to areas where the arrival of the electrical grid is years, if not decades, off. The transformation is not only in access to light for remote communities, but also in the fact that this can happen without increasing climate changing emissions.

Liter of Light is a global open source organisation that started with the simple idea of filling a 1 litre clear plastic drink bottle with water and some bleach (to prevent algae growing) and setting it in a hole in the roof of a cabin or hut. The sunlight refracts in the water and lights up the room (an amaxing 55 wattage).

However, that does not help during the hours of darkness. Studying and work has to stop as early as 6 pm for many. Liter of Light’s Brazil chapter has innovated not only an internal light which uses a led light charged by a solar panel, but also a street light using the same technique.


Critical to the success of the project is the fact that all the components are assembled by the local communities themselves. They decide if they want street lights, where they will go, and take on the construction and maintenance themselves. Liter of Light provides training and helps with access to materials – working through partnerships with local suppliers particularly for batteries, led-lights and solar panel components. The street light uses ordinary plastic piping for its construction. Energy security is furnished not by a distantly controlled grid, but by localities running their own system.

Liter of Light Brazil will use its US$100,000 to extend its project to isolated riverine communities where women in particular will welcome the street lighting which makes it safer to move around after dark. Project President, Vitor Belote Gomes, said experience so far suggests that the batteries store more energy than is need to power the lights overnight, so he will be exploring the potetial of the street lights to power internet access too as well as provide a charging for mobile phones.

These innovations will increase the chances of this technology influencing not only the energy poor but also those serious about shifting electricity generation away from fossil fuels everywhere.

As a long-time judge of the St Andrews Prize I’ve been fortunate to see some great projects as winners or runners up, but this one is the first to have the major transformative potential that a quick shift to sustainability will need.

Pictured: Vitor Belota Gomes, Liter of Light (centre) flanked by runners up after winning the 2016 St Andrews Prize. For more details of this year’s and past prize winners and details how to enter for the 2017 prize see The St Andrews Prize