5 solar organizations with a social conscience

Received a note from someone at Santa Clara University, which is currently running a "boot camp" on social entrepreneurship as part of the Global Social Benefit Incubator. One of the big pushes for this year's program is renewable energy.

Received a note from someone at Santa Clara University, which is currently running a "boot camp" on social entrepreneurship as part of the Global Social Benefit Incubator. One of the big pushes for this year's program is renewable energy. But what caught my attention as I was reading this email was the highlight on solar companies that fell outside the normal technology manufacturing, financing and integration crowd that I usually interview. Here are three of those companies, proving that solar could have an impact on far more than home energy consumption or for keeping one of your gadgets charged on the beach.

1. Now Hear This

Solar Ear is a company based in Brazil and Mexico that make solar-powered hearing aids that are priced at less than $100. (Compared with around $750 for other products targeting this same category. (The photo to the right shows someone holding the charger.) The batteries distributed with the hearing aids are designed to last two to three years, much longer than traditional disposable zinc air batteries, according to the company's product literature.

2. Keep Food Cool

Promethean Power Systems from Cambridge, Mass., is developing a solar-powered refrigerator that is designed for commercial-grade cold storage off the grid. The system is loaded with ice, and then the solar power distributes the cold air. The team behind the technology has been working on the idea since 2007, and it is seeking to run trials in India. Promethean was runner-up in an entrepreneurship competition held by the Massachusetts Institute of technology.

3. Giving Light to Midwives

WE CARE Solar from Africa is focused on providing electricity to mobile health care facilities, with a focus on reducing infant mortality in regions that may or may not have a steady source of electricity. The company's solar "suitcases" -- which can provide enough power for two overhead LED lights, walkie-talkies and cell phones -- were recently used in disaster relief in Haiti. (WE CARE stands for Women's Emergency Communications and Reliable Electricity.)

4. Powering the Essentials

Freeplay Energy, which develops everything from radios to lights to medical equipment, is actually an alumnist of the Santa Clara program. Freeplay Energy is well-established as solar technology companies go; it has been around since 1996 and it was initially funded with money from the British government.

5. Lighting Up Remote Classrooms

Last but not least, I'll mention Smallbean, a group from Massachusetts that I've written about several times. Smallbean is bringing solar technology to schools off the grid in Africa through what it calls its Citizen Archivist Project.

Like WE CARE, the organization has a grounded focus -- it is bringing solar panels to locations along with donated computer equipment that can be used in the classroom -- AND it also is distributing solar suitcases for mobile use.

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