Florida CEO Lights the World

Alan Hurst and his company bring solar lighting to developing and industrialized nations alike.

Alan Hurst

Alan Hurst meets with a delegation from Cameroon interested in learning more about solar lighting solutions. Hurst’s company, Sol Inc., has installed solar lighting systems in developing and industrialized nations around the world. Photo: Sol Inc.

They’re simple routines for most of us: Flicking on a lamp when we get home at night. Commuting on lighted streets. Walking safely through a well-lit parking lot.

Yet, habits we take for granted are luxuries for millions in developing countries. Living off grid — because there is no grid, or at least, no reliable one — means businesses close at dark. It means socializing ends when the sun goes down. And it means health problems caused by the use of sooty campfires and cook stoves.

Alan Hurst and his company, Palm City, Fla.-based Sol Inc. (solarlighting.com), have spent the last 20 years trying to change that. Specializing in commercial and industrial solar lighting solutions, Sol Inc. has delivered clean-powered lights for streets, walkways, community plazas and bus shelters to developing countries around the world.

Light is basic to man’s success.  When we enable families to grow their economies, socialize, feel safe, we’re improving their lives.”

What’s more, Hurst frequently donates his solar lighting systems to areas struck by natural disasters, from his own state after Hurricane Andrew to villages in Peru after a massive earthquake in 2007. When Haiti was devastated by a quake in January, Hurst and members of his staff traveled to Port-au-Prince, where they installed donated solar lights at the hospital, airport and other important recovery facilities.

University Hospital Haiti

Sol Inc. staff members and volunteers install a solar light at the University Hospital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. After the country’s earthquake in January, Sol Inc. founder Alan Hurst asked a customer in Africa to accept a later shipment of lights and redirected those lights to Haiti, so they could be used in recovery efforts. Photo: Sol Inc.

When asked why he helps, Hurst replies that it’s simply the culture of his company. He calls Sol Inc. “a goosebumps business,” the kind of company where employees are thrilled to be making a significant difference in the world. “A lot of people can’t say that about their work,” he says. “We can say it.”

Hurst, 62, has light bulbs to thank for those goose-bumps. In the 1990s, he was a businessman with no background in solar. Looking for a new venture, Hurst says his kids encouraged him to do something environmentally friendly. At the same time, energy-efficient CFLs were just beginning to take off. Hurst saw a real use for solar-powered lighting, made more effective with CFLs instead of energy-hogging incandescents, and Sol Inc. was born.

It wasn’t smooth sailing at first. “When we started out, people didn’t know what solar was,” Hurst says. “We had to create a market for our product, and that was quite challenging.” So Hurst spent a lot of time educating anyone who would listen — business groups, international dignitaries, homeowner’s associations — about the advantages of solar lighting. He credits his customers for much of the firm’s success, because they’ve been willing to take a chance on an unfamiliar technology.

Today, the company, which now primarily uses LED lights, is the largest firm dedicated to the design and manufacture of commercial solar lighting systems.

Sol Inc. has more than 38,000 systems installed in 61 countries on six continents, lighting everything from billboards and military installations in the United States to roadways in Nigeria. And Hurst plans to grow those numbers significantly as solar continues to gain ground.

“We just want to keep getting better and better and serving more and more people,” he says. “Solar isn’t for everyone and everywhere, but it does work, and it works very well. Solar is going to grow, and the more people know about it, the better off we all will be.” — COREY DAHL

Corey Dahl is managing editor of SOLAR TODAY.

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