How an energy entrepreneur is helping to light up the world
Dan Schnitzer has been passionate about renewable energy since the eighth grade, when he discovered he could make clean fuel from apple peels using his grandma’s pressure cooker. Later, he learned that lack of access to energy is a trap that keeps people in poverty. He vowed to try to solve a huge problem: In developing countries, as much as half the population has no reliable source of electricity. He founded his company, SparkMeter, to try to fill that crying need. SparkMeter recently ranked #1 on Fast Company’s 10 Most Innovative Energy Companies of 2021.
Some people know from an early age that they are environmentalists. Dan Schnitzer certainly did. Inspired by childhood nature walks with his mom, he studied pond water under a microscope. At age 13, he conducted the first of many environmental experiments—for a science fair, he made clean fuel from fruit.
After learning about the concept of “poverty traps” in college, Dan realized that lack of energy access is an infrastructure failure—and a massive burden on disadvantaged communities. Approximately two billion people worldwide either don’t have energy access or it’s unreliable.
Without reliable sources of electricity, people are forced to rely on dirty fuel like charcoal and kerosene to generate power, which are dangerous and expensive. The use of these fuels, particularly indoors, leads to devastating health outcomes, including early death from pneumonia, heart disease, and lung cancer.
Dan traveled to Haiti in 2008 and worked with communities to learn more about their energy needs. Within a year, his nonprofit, EarthSpark International, was helping to build a different, more reliable kind of infrastructure called microgrids. That was just the beginning of his entrepreneurial journey.
Today, SparkMeter sells software that helps utilities in 25 developing countries provide reliable, affordable electric service in rural areas.
Dan tells Degrees host Yesh Pavlik Slenk that his mother instilled in him an ethos of gratitude and responsibility. She encouraged him to pursue a career helping other people. He wanted to make sure, though, that his service was actually useful. “There’s a long history of development working to help people, but in ways that really didn’t go well,” he says. “And as the old saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
Dan believes everyone should be invested in helping developing nations access clean, reliable, and affordable energy. “The climate problem is a global problem,” he says. “The emissions that come from Nigeria into the atmosphere are going to have the same effect on climate change as the emissions here.”
Resources mentioned in this episode:
- Fast Company: The 10 Most Innovative Energy Companies in 2021
- WHO: Household Air Pollution and Health
- Northwestern University: Poverty Trap
- Greentech Media: Sparkmeter Closes 12m to Expand From Metering Minigrids to Analyzing Broken Grids
- Researchgate: Microgrids for Rural Electrification Dan Schnitzer’s 2016 critical review of microgrid practices in rural areas
Follow Daniel Schnitzer and SparkMeter:
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