SELF was founded in 1990 by Neville Williams, author of “Chasing the Sun: Solar Adventures Around the World” and former U.S. Department of Energy staffer during the Carter administration. The organization’s primary mission was to develop small-scale solar energy systems for homes in rural communities that would generate enough power to run a few compact florescent lights, a radio, and a small black and white television for four or five hours each evening. By 1997, SELF had established 11 self-sustaining solar energy projects in eleven countries throughout Asia, Africa, and South America, such as powering 1,000 households in 14 villages in western China; starting a division within a national development agency to sell photovoltaic systems in Sri Lanka at prices villagers could afford; working with the Masai tribe in Tanzania to acquire solar-powered telephones and FM radios; and installing a photovoltaic system in a South African school, using the energy to power computers and connect them to the internet.
However, SELF’s goal was not to merely supply solar lighting systems to a small number of homes and walk away, but rather it was to establish a business model that could be self-sustained in communities over the long term, one that would eventually pave the way for the commercialization of solar electrification of homes in the developing world. Through a series of pilot projects around the world, SELF had demonstrated the willingness of rural families to pay for solar electricity when given access to credit.
Given the success of the pilots, in 1997 the organization decided to launch a for-profit affiliate to be led by Williams called the Solar Electric Light Company (SELCO) based in Bangalore, India, its goal being to sell solar home systems in the states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.
In 2000, led by its new executive director, Bob Freling, SELF embarked on its next generation of projects, seeking ways to harness solar energy to empower people in developing countries to rise from poverty by using energy from the sun to power rural schools, health clinics, small businesses, and water pumping and purification systems.