LuminaNET: Social Network Sparks Off-Grid Lighting Conversation in Developing Countries

LuminaNet member map
Evan Mills
May 2014

From a discussion about resources to fund a village solar microgrid in India, to a conversation about the environmental impact of solar portable lamps, to a heated exchange about a claim made by a member in a recent article, what's happening inside LuminaNET this week—a social network for the global off-grid lighting community—looks a lot like what happens in any other robust community of like minded people. Except that in LuminaNET members live and work in 68 countries around the world and most would likely have never met without the forum.

Social networks are in the news these days with claims and questions about "viral" reach, crowd sourcing, and community building. But Evan Mills, founder of the Lumina Project at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), has found a way to successfully harness the power of social media for his cause.

"In this particular case, we had stakeholders all over the planet who didn't know about each other," said Mills. "An NGO in Zimbabwe doesn't know about the researcher in Peru who has the answer to a burning question, but even though some don't even have electricity at home they all have smart phones and was a natural progression," he said.

LuminaNET is an initiative of the Lumina Project, which Mills started at Berkeley Lab in 1994 to cultivate technologies and markets for affordable low-carbon alternatives to fuel-based lighting in the developing world—which, Mills estimates, costs the world's poor $38 billion each year, and is responsible for very significant amounts of greenhouse-gas emissions, particularly CO2 and black carbon.

In the 20 years since then, Mills and the Lumina Project have advised and inspired a number of private manufacturers to introduce and improve new products to the marketplace. No products were on the market when Lumina began; today—thanks to the efforts of many—more than 100 products are available to choose from. Lumina's significant contributions to the off-grid lighting world include:

  • Ground-breaking research including a 2005 article in Science journal that presented the first-ever estimate of global energy expenditures for fuel-based lighting; a study that identified severe product quality concerns and developed the first quality assurance test protocols for these products; and the first lab-based research to quantify the levels of dangerous PM 2.5 emissions from kerosene lanterns (which determined that the levels can well exceed established U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and World Health Organization safety guidelines).
  • Technical assistance to the World Bank Group's International Finance Corporation (2006) in evaluating the potential for off-grid lighting innovation in the African marketplace, resulting in a multi-million-dollar ongoing Lighting Global initiative to catalyze markets for off-grid lighting solutions. Nearly eight million people in Africa alone are benefitting from improved lighting under this initiative. Lighting Global greatly expanded Lumina's quality testing approach, which has in turn been adopted by the International Electrotechnical Commission. About 76 products made by 36 companies have met the Lighting Global minimum quality standards, almost half of which only passed after correcting deficiencies identified during testing.
  • Field work including demonstrations of LED lighting (instead of kerosene) in rural chicken production (Kenya), artisanal night fishing (Tanzania), research on the use of kerosene among night vendors (Kenya's Rift Valley Province), and as a substitute for diesel lighting among Tibetan yak herders.
  • Development of a novel methodology for greenhouse-gas savings accounting that has been formally adopted by the carbon trading system under the United Nations' Clean Development Mechanism.

As part of the Lumina Project, Mills launched LuminaNET in late 2012, the world's only social networking site for the off-grid lighting community. Mills said that LuminaNET was conceived as a way to involve more stakeholders with the Lumina Project and to further the technology transfer mission of his project, the Laboratory, and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). LuminaNET is funded by the Blum Center for Developing Economies and the DOE's Global LEAP program.

"Most EETD researchers are engaged in technology transfer—we have a strong desire to do this—because we can't achieve change or market uptake without awareness of the research done by us or others without it," Mills said. "In this case, the audience who would benefit from this information is a community—bigger than any of them might have realized. Social media was a natural way to get this community talking," he said.

The Lumina Project has had a conventional website and mailing list for more than 10 years, but Mills said that, even with energy being put into outreach and promotion, it was only getting 10 visits a day. Within a short amount of time after the social media site was launched, LuminaNET was consistently averaging 100 visitors a day.

"It's a clear indication that people prefer a place where they can talk and connect with other like-minded people rather than a static self-centered website," Mills said. "We had to go through the process ourselves to learn that, but it was quickly affirmed," he said.

After a fair amount of work getting the site set up, seeding the conversations, dedicating some time to the blog, posting their own work, and recruiting early members, the site operates mostly on its own now, with more than 570 members and an average of six posts a day. Almost one third of the members have posted or participated on the site, said Mills, and almost all of the comments and posts are substantive and meaningful. The site is also actively visited by non-members, as evidenced by the 16,000 unique visitors since its inception.

The network not only fosters collaboration and information sharing within a far-flung community, but also has become a crowd-sourced research tool in and of itself, serving to pool unique data on off-grid lighting energy use and real-world field projects designed to deploy replacement products in the marketplace. Thus far, projects members have posted projects from 23 countries spanning Asia, Africa, the Americas, Oceania, and the Middle East.

"We have several different ways to crowd-source information on LuminaNET," said Mills. "In one, we ask people, 'what are you doing in the trenches?' and ask them to identify their project on our on-line map. There is nowhere else where this data is aggregated, and no other place that these field projects for off-grid lighting have been pooled to be looked at. LuminaNET gives people working to improve off-grid lighting a common watering hole," he said.

Mills is also using LuminaNET as a vehicle for pooling primary data on 80 draft country lighting assessments in support of a United Nations Environment Programme modeling effort that quantifies the magnitude of fuel-based off-grid lighting around the world. Members have collectively built a large library of off-grid lighting photos and videos as well.

Evan still finds time for research and publications—his latest, published in March 2014, provides the first peer-reviewed embodied-energy analysis (Read the March 2014 report here) showing that solar-LED lanterns "pay back" the energy it takes to manufacture them within a month or two.

Looking to the future, Mills has three studies now underway with the United Nations Environment Programme. One study identifies the level of global energy subsidies that go to lighting fuels. Another identifies the potential loss of livelihood that could arise from the reduction of lighting fuel use, as well as new livelihood creation from solar replacements. The third study is looking at the health impacts of fuel-based lighting.

Kyra Epstein


Evan Mills (510) 486-6784