A Spark of Hope

For Daniel Schnitzer, a Carnegie Mellon Engineering and Public Policy doctoral candidate, a passion that began with a middle school science project has blossomed into an organization helping to literally light the way in Haiti.

EarthSpark International, the nonprofit Schnitzer founded in 2008, recently was awarded a $1.1 million U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) grant as a winner of the “Powering Agriculture: An Energy Grand Challenge for Development” program. The organization, dedicated to providing access to clean energy, was one of 12 winners selected from a pool of 475 applicants. The grant will enable EarthSpark to expand and solarize the diesel-based micro-grid it established in Les Anglais, Haiti, in 2012.

EarthSpark began with Schnitzer’s effort to provide street lighting for Les Anglais, a small town in a country where 75 percent of the population lacks direct access to electricity. In the poorest country in the western hemisphere, lighting depends primarily on kerosene lamps and candles, while cooking stoves are charcoal-fueled. According to EarthSpark, the average Haitian family spends 7 percent of their income on lighting, 14 times more than the average American family. Schnitzer found that while inexpensive products — such as solar lamps — do exist, a lack of physical and financial access creates barriers in getting the products into the hands of those in need.

In response, EarthSpark created “Enèji Pwòp” (which means “clean energy” in Haitian Creole), a network of retail businesses across Haiti that carry a line of small-scale solar products and efficient cook stoves. From the first store, which opened in 2010, there are now 102 retailers with total sales exceeding 8,000 products, benefitting approximately 40,000 residents.

EarthSpark next began tackling the underlying problem of expensive, unreliable electricity by launching a micro-grid in the town of Les Anglais. By tapping into the excess diesel-generated power of a mobile phone tower, the grid provides continuous power to 54 households. The USAID grant will allow EarthSpark to solarize this grid and scale it to over 500 customers. Rather than generating their own power, the mobile phone operators will purchase power from the EarthSpark solar micro-grid. This will importantly provide a proven model for duplication. Schnitzer hopes to establish a for-profit company through which investors can fund many more micro-grid utilities throughout Haiti.

Schnitzer’s dedication to aiding the underserved would come as no surprise to his parents, former New York City public school teachers who, early on, instilled the value of giving back into their son. His passion for energy also began early, with his eighth grade science fair entry. He distilled fermented apple peels into ethanol, in a still he constructed with his grandmother’s pressure cooker, plastic tubing and a coffee can. While comparing the results of his homemade fuel to kerosene as they burned in a hurricane lamp, he had a life-changing realization.

“I said to myself, ‘How can a 12-year-old kid be making this fairly-efficient fuel — out of waste — that emits much less soot than industrialized fuel? There’s something wrong with the way that we’re using energy in the world.’ After that, I was hooked on studying energy,” Schnitzer recalled.

As an undergraduate, Schnitzer triple-majored in physics, economics and environmental policy at the University of Chicago to approach energy with full understanding. After graduation and working as an energy consultant, he decided to expand his knowledge of power engineering and explored graduate options.

Carnegie Mellon, with its interdisciplinary program and culture, was his first choice. “I’ve always been an interdisciplinary person. A whole school that believes in that kind of thinking is a perfect match for me,” he says. What sealed the deal, though, was an unexpected joint call from distinguished professors Jay Apt and Lester Lave, both with joint appointments in the Tepper School of Business and Engineering and Public Policy.

“When we identify outstanding Ph.D. students like Dan, we’re not passive,” Apt explained. “Occasionally, you see the real star.”

Schnitzer is currently researching micro-grid engineering and policy with respect to marginalized communities with Apt as his advisor. In fact, Schnitzer is the lead author of a report on micro-grid best practices just published by the United Nations.

“I’m delighted to see that Dan’s work in Haiti has not only resulted in an extension of his EarthSpark work, but has also led to global work on micro-grids that have now been picked up in a United Nations report,” said Apt.

The seeds for EarthSpark were sown shortly before Schnitzer arrived at Carnegie Mellon, when a former Les Anglais resident emailed him. The man had found Schnitzer’s undergraduate project online — a wind turbine — and wanted one to power streetlights for his community. Schnitzer instead offered to research solar street lighting, which proved surprisingly expensive. A subsequent trip to Haiti where Schnitzer trained a local organization to field energy surveys he designed demonstrated the population’s greater need for home lighting. EarthSpark was born.

This wasn’t all for the entrepreneurial Schnitzer. With guidance and “great mentorship” from Art Boni, the Tepper School’s John R. Thorne Distinguished Career Professor of Entrepreneurship and Dave Mawhinney, co-director of Carnegie Mellon’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, he assisted in the launch of EEme with a fellow graduate student and spun out SparkMeter from EarthSpark. SparkMeter’s low cost smart meters are designed for electric utilities serving low-income customers. These devices allow for prepayment, as well as real time monitoring and control to address problems of cost, monitoring and payment from remote, low-income customers.

Last year, Schnitzer was named one of Forbes Magazine’s “30 under 30” in the energy sector. Today, EarthSpark has six full-time and three part-time employees in the U.S. and Haiti. Schnitzer envisions 20 micro-grids throughout Haiti by 2015. At this rate, his growing spark may light up the world.