West Michigan Men Introduce Solar Lantern

June 6, 2008
| By Pete Daly |
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GRAND RAPIDS — An idea born during their nonprofit volunteer work in Africa has inspired four West Michigan men to launch an innovative new product in the American market.

The K-Light solar-charged lantern is now being sold by PiSAT Solar, a company formed by four West Michigan men in 2005. About 4,000 of the lanterns have already been assembled in Grand Rapids and shipped to Africa by a nonprofit foundation, but now PiSAT is planning to have about 17,000 more assembled and sold commercially, with a portion of the proceeds to be donated to the Koinonia Foundation Light For Africa micro-loan program.

The K-Light, according to the PiSAT Solar Web site, "is the only solar-powered, light-emitting diode (LED) lantern available in the U.S. market." It uses 16 bright white LEDs, powered by a 7.6 volt battery that can be recharged more than 3,000 times, making it functional for about 10 years. Recharging is accomplished with a small, unbreakable 0.76 watt solar panel that plugs into the lantern.

Dale Williams, a retired physician in Cascade Township, said he and his three partners worked on the design for about a year and a half. “We tried to make them as inexpensively as possible and as durable as possible. And we've got that."

The 4,000 lanterns already made were assembled by workers provided through an employment program operated by First United Methodist Church in Grand Rapids. The parts come from China, according to Williams.

The lantern was originally designed for the 75 percent of African homes that do not have electricity, but Williams said he and his partners began getting feedback from people in the U.S. who saw the lanterns and wanted one for camping, or for use on a boat or as an emergency lantern for home use in the event of power outages. The K-Light is priced at about $60, direct from PiSAT Solar.

PiSAT Solar is made up of Williams and two other doctors, Martin Graber and Nicholas Pietrangelo, and an engineer, William Greenhoe.

Williams, Graber and Greenhoe were working as volunteers from the Koinonia Foundation in Rwanda in 2002, putting up solar energy systems at schools so that the students could use computers. Williams said he and the other volunteers often discussed other ways solar energy could be used to improve the lives of the people of Africa. One day, according to Williams, Greenhoe made the comment that they ought to come up with a practical way to replace the kerosene lanterns used in most African homes.

Kerosene lanterns, said Williams, are dirty and pollute the air inside the home. And, said Williams, “they are dangerous — they cause fires and health problems. And they are expensive (to use) — and even worse now, since (petroleum) prices have gone up."

The PiSAT Web site states that kerosene is much more expensive than other types of energy for interior lighting. An African household spends an average of $77 a year on kerosene, which in the poorer communities is equal to 14 percent of the household budget.

People who live with kerosene fumes in their homes inhale the equivalent of two packs of cigarettes a day, according to a World Bank estimate.

PiSAT Solar joined with the Koinonia Foundation to provide the K-Lights to villages across Africa. The foundation provided the lantern parts to African women, which they assembled and sold in their villages. They were then able to buy components for more lanterns, at a discount, and the project created employment and economic activity in African communities as well as bringing clean, efficient lighting into their homes.

Williams said Greenhoe is the technology expert at PiSAT Solar.

"Bill Greenhoe — he's got all the brains. He's the smart one. He came up with the idea and he developed it. The rest of us pitched in," said Williams.

Greenhoe, who has an electrical engineering degree from the University of Michigan, was vice president of operations at Harding Energy in Norton Shores before he and the other three partners formed PiSAT in 2005.

Graber, an M.D., has more than 40 years in health care and worked as a missionary for more than 25 years, often in Africa.

Nicholas Pietrangelo, an osteopath, spent 24 years as an anesthesiologist before turning his interests to solar energy. In 1986, he founded the Sun/Harding Think Tank for solar power, which in 1991 became Harding Energy Inc. Harding Energy was one of the first companies to receive a license from Energy Conversion Devices to manufacture and distribute NiMH batteries. Today, Harding is a leading battery cell manufacturer. Pietrangelo also helped form Grand Valley State University’s Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center in Muskegon.

Williams, an M.D. with more than 40 years in medicine, started the Koinonia Foundation when he opened a free medical clinic for the poor in Muskegon Heights in the early 1970s. He also worked at times as a medical missionary in developing areas of the world, through the Koinonia Foundation.

Williams said in mid-May that parts were coming in for 17,000 lanterns and that PiSAT was looking for a place in Grand Rapids for the assembly process. PiSAT was also looking at office space in downtown Grand Rapids.

Williams retired years ago from the Koinonia Foundation but then decided to go back to school, and in 1996 he earned an MBA degree.

"I've done three or four things" in business since then, he said. One was the establishment of a small medical device company in Seattle, which he eventually sold to Stryker. Although he is "retired," he stays busy in projects such as the K-Light.

"It beats playing shuffle board," he said.

PiSAT has hired Lambert, Edwards & Associates in Grand Rapids to help them market the K-Light.

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