The story of the GivePower Foundation starts in 2010, in the aftermath of the massive Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In an area still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina several years earlier, the spill severely hampered the local seafood industry and put a lot of people out of work. Elon, Pete and Lyndon wanted to try to do something to help, and at the same time demonstrate the potential of energy without oil in an area that had seen very little renewable development.
With funding from Elon’s Musk Foundation, SolarCity donated a solar panel and battery backup installation to a hurricane response center in a town in southern Alabama—Coden—whose lifeblood had been commercial fishing prior to the spill. The donation was meant to ensure that local residents would have a safe, well-lit and air-conditioned place to gather should another disaster strike, with the added bonus of lowering the response center’s ongoing electricity costs.
The project began what would become the first of a series of disaster relief efforts. SolarCity and Elon’s Musk Foundation teamed on a similar project in Japan in 2011 in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and in 2012, SolarCity worked with partners to provide portable solar power stations for victims of Hurricane Sandy in the Northeast.
SolarCity went public in late 2012 and grew into a better position to make a broader impact. In the fall of 2013, Hayes Barnard joined SolarCity as chief revenue officer when his own company—Paramount Energy Solutions—was acquired. A few years earlier, Hayes had been exposed to the challenges that schoolchildren in impoverished areas of the globe faced through buildOn, a nonprofit that builds schools in the developing world.
Hayes spearheaded an effort to create a charitable foundation within SolarCity to address energy poverty for schoolchildren around the world, and recruited David Reichbaum to lead the organization. At the end of 2013 SolarCity officially launched the GivePower Foundation to provide light to schools in the developing world that lack basic access to electricity.
In 2014, GivePower exceeded its goal of lighting 400 schools, helping a total of 511 schools in Africa and Central America expand their potential. Power can instantly make a difference to the 1.3 billion people living off the grid.
“These schools are often the central meeting place in the communities,” says Reichbaum, GivePower’s Global Program Manager. “Whether it’s a health clinic or adult literacy classes in the evening, or a spot for the community to gather, by bringing electricity these schools are now empowered to lift the community from some of the worst poverty imaginable.”
GivePower targets areas of the world most in need—such as sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Central America and Asia, home to nearly 97% of the world’s people currently living without access to power. Schools with power can attract superior teachers, increase the number and type of classes, and help students connect with the world.
The simple to use, solar-in-a-box kits GivePower provides include batteries, panels, and lights; they allow many schools to have interior lighting for the first time. Working with partners such as Intel, buildOn, World Vision and GRID Alternatives, last year the GivePower program sent teams to four countries to build schools from the ground up and install solar systems.
SolarCity employees were able to join on three of these trips, and see firsthand the changes connectivity can mean for a community. In Mali, where only 1/4 of the population has access to electricity, recipient schools can now attract more teachers to the rural area. In Nicaragua, where more than 1.5 million people don’t have power, the remote 250 person-strong community of El Islote no longer lives in the dark. And in Kenya, the school in the village of Kirindon can now power the laptops donated by Intel.
The solar kits are designed to last at least a decade, and much longer for the larger build projects. The SolarCity teams also train locals to troubleshoot equipment, and provide long-term support to ensure schools remain powered.
GivePower continues its goal of providing light to one school for every megawatt of solar power installed in the U.S. This year, thanks to a $500,000 donation from the Bank of America Charitable Foundation, the organization’s goal has doubled to over 1,000 additional schools.
GivePower has also achieved 501(c)(3) public charity status; now everyone can give the gift of light regardless whether they’ve gone solar with SolarCity or not. Corporations and individuals can help bring light and opportunity to communities in need with GivePower through donations.
Reichbaum says with more backing, GivePower has its sights set on expanding to light up medical clinics and libraries, as well as expanding people’s expectations of solar energy.
“The goal is to demonstrate to the world that solar is not only for developed countries, it’s something the rest of the world has adopted to skip over the traditional energy infrastructure. We’d like to inspire people to consider solar as the new norm.”