Finding and using alternate sources of energy may be the number one problem looking for a solution in the next decade. Goal Zero takes a step in the right direction.

Goal Zero's portable solar panel is popular for charging personal electronics when you are off the grid. Photo courtesy of Goal Zero.

While working in the Congo with his own humanitarian nonprofit Teaching Individuals and Families Independence through Enterprise or TIFIE, Robert Workman was struck by the lack of reliable power.

Workman returned to Utah to form Goal Zero and devise a portable power source that looked half-bowling pin, half-coffee pot. Funneling solar power to a battery pack, the gadget also had AC and USB ports so was able to power lights and charge cell phones. Suddenly, children could read at night, modern communication was ensured and villagers could charge 25 cents to $1 for a recharge at their seemingly miraculous docking station.

“They’d use that money to go buy corn or goats or whatever they needed,” explains Lisa Janssen, Goal Zero’s public relations director. “It created a self-sustaining business model within these villages.”

Goal Zero, launched in 2009, could have been a purely humanitarian venture. It first provided power packs to developing-world aid efforts organized by the LDS Church. The goal—zero illiteracy, zero poverty and zero hunger—spawned the company name. But Goal Zero’s adrenaline-loving executives discovered another, more lucrative, market among the streams of Subarus zipping through Utah’s mountains. Between smartphones, tablets, laptops, digital cameras and GPS units, weekend hikers and thrill-seekers lug as many electrical-powered gadgets as tent stakes. And they all need a charge.

“Our main value system is empowering human potential,” say James Atkin, the company’s director of community marketing, “whether that’s in a tent in the Uintas or a wooden hut in the Congo.”

So Goal Zero came up with a compact charging combo, easy to stuff into a pack, that is durable and under three pounds. The Sherpa 50 charging kit and Nomad 13 solar panel can charge anything from a headlamp to a laptop in the time it takes for a day hike.

A growing range of devices are tested on Workman’s ranch near Morgan. To prove their worth off the grid, Goal Zero products also have supported National Geographic photo shoots from Kyrgyzstan to Antarctica. But plenty of regular recreation lovers—blue-water sailors, river runners and backpacking families—also are buying into portable power. For sale at Cabela’s and COSTCO, Goal Zero has taken its Third World product mainstream.

In 2012, Goal Zero earned more than $33 million in revenue, according to Janssen. And Inc. put it at No. 9 among its 500 fastest-growing private companies.

Yet, the trailblazer has not lost track of its humanitarian roots. Last month, Goal Zero launched Share the Sun, a program Atkin says will put the Congo “on steroids.” Under Share the Sun, people who buy Goal Zero products earn money to donate to international projects including disaster relief. Goal Zero updates its buyers through pictures and progress reports on social media. “The bigger we get,” Atkin adds, “the more we can do to change the world.”

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