As a specialist in sustainable lighting design at the New Haven office of Atelier Ten, Chad Groshart thinks about the future of light sources and fixtures all the time. Until a trip to rural Nepal in October 2008, however, he hadn't spent a lot of time thinking about the absence of light. “I heard about the work of the Himalayan Light Foundation (HLF) at the IALD's Enlighten Europe conference in February 2008, and was struck by the idea of a lighting designer traveling to a place with no light,” Groshart says. Motivated both personally and professionally to make the journey to Nepal, Groshart and his father, Mickey, who accompanied him on the two-week expedition, raised $10,000 to cover their travel expenses and purchase six solar lighting kits that they would install at three mountain village schools outside of Kathmandu under the auspices of HLF's Solar Sisters program.
The HLF is the not-for-profit arm of a company that sells solar-powered lighting kits to homeowners in areas without regular or reliable power grids. “Kathmandu makes use of load shedding, or what we would call rolling blackouts,” explains Groshart. And that is merely in the city itself. The rugged and steep topography of most Nepalese villages makes the installation of regular power lines infeasible; the few that can afford it install photovoltaics. The HLF's Solar Sisters initiative matches volunteers, who have raised funds for the lighting units, with villages in need of off-grid electric light for one of their main community buildings—which in most cases is a school.
Groshart and his father's first evening in the village of Ghampasel underscored the profound changes that electric light could bring. After sharing a meal of dhal bat (lentil soup over rice, the staple food of the region) with the family hosting them, the duo was left to their own devices—and they were thrown for a loop. “By 8 o'clock, the village had gone to bed, and we didn't know what to do,” says Groshart. “There was no controllable light except for a few candles, so we read by headlamp for a while and then turned in.” The next day, they awoke to the cock's crow before dawn, and were soon at work installing the kits, which include a 40W photovoltaic panel, a deep-cycle battery, a wiring kit with switches, and four 10W linear fluorescent lamps.
From Ghampasel, Groshart and his father—accompanied by a HLF liasion who served as their translator, and another person as their guide/electrician—traveled 3 kilometers by foot with all their gear to the village of Masel. It was an easy trek compared to the route to the third village, Darbung, which is accessible only via a narrow suspension bridge. The way they were greeted by the people of Masel was typical of the experience they had at each village: Even though it was a Sunday, a non-school day, hundreds turned out to welcome them, including schoolchildren.
The ability to provide illumination for these school buildings has significance well beyond just lighting a space. Groshart would soon learn that the school day is actually divided into two shifts, one starting before dawn, and the other ending a half-hour after dusk, in order to accommodate all of the children in the village. The lighting kits would mean that they no longer had to study in the dark, and even more children potentially could be accommodated. When the light was ready to test the next morning, the teacher waited in the pre-dawn darkness until all of the students were present before switching it on; the flick of the switch was met with great applause.
For Groshart, to say the experience was transformative would be an understatement. And he is already planning for his next trip. “There is an awareness and value of light that these villagers have because they are so often without light,” Groshart says. “We, on the other hand, have so much light at our disposal. It's hard to imagine going about our daily routines with less light—but that is exactly what I find myself doing now, really thinking about light and if I need to turn the switch on.”
Anne Guiney is a writer and editor based in New York.