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Not long ago, it took at least three hours for electricity to travel the 50 miles from Port-au-Prince to Boucan Carré on Haiti's remote Central Plateau, moving laboriously by four-wheel-drive up a rocky, rutted dirt road, sloshing in barrels or cans smelling of diesel.
Now it gets there at the speed of light – direct from the sun, 93 million miles away.
In 2009, the Solar Electric Light Fund, an organization that brings solar power to impoverished areas of the world that lack grid electricity, worked with the medical-aid group Partners In Health to install a 10-kilowatt solar array on the roof of a medical clinic in Boucan Carré. Until then, diesel generators had been the only way to produce electricity in the village.
It was a familiar scenario for Robert Freling, and one that he hopes will be repeated many times over. And now, as Haiti struggles to recover from a devastating earthquake, he sees solar as a ray of hope for rebuilding there, and elsewhere.
"Out of a global population that now exceeds 6 billion people, close to 2 billion still don't have access to electricity," says Mr. Freling, executive director of the Solar Electric Light Fund, or SELF, based in Washington, D.C.
From Haiti, to Vietnam, to a Navajo community in America's Southwest, the nonprofit group is helping isolated populations leapfrog from kerosene lamps and fuel-gulping, fume-spewing generators to compact fluorescent and LED lights, solar-powered water pumps and wireless Internet access.
Mikhail S. Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union, believes that as the world emerges from recession, now is the time, and solar is the way, for under-developed regions to make the leap to modernity.
"It's not just a matter of rescuing the world's economy – there is more at stake," Mr. Gorbachev said last year at a press conference in Texas oil country. "This economic crisis must mark the beginning of a new sustainable development path that has been long overdue. Solar power needs big investments to expand and create significant effects. For the 2 billion people currently living without electricity, the sun is the best hope."
The Solar Electric Light Fund has been turning that hope into reality since its founding in 1990 by Neville Williams, a journalist, author and former U.S. Department of Energy employee.
SELF did not give solar panels away but sold them to families or villages at a small markup and created loan funds for use by others. Small 50-watt modules produced electricity that could be stored in a battery to power a few lights and a small black-and-white television set or radio at night.
The goal, Mr. Freling says, was not to install photovoltaic modules at a few locations and walk away, but to create a self-sustaining approach that would lead toward commercial solar electrification in developing countries. In Bangalore, India, the fund established a for-profit affiliate called the Solar Electric Light Company, or SELCO, which has achieved commercial success in selling lower-cost solar equipment, mostly to low-income rural residents, and is now completely independent.
When SELCO was spun off in the late 1990s, Mr. Williams went to work for it and Mr. Freling, who had started in 1994 as a volunteer translator for a SELF project in China, took over as head of the Solar Electric Light Fund.
"I got to re-fashion SELF in my own vision," says Mr. Freling, a Dallas native and Yale University alumnus who holds a graduate degree from the Annenberg School of Communications Management at the University of Southern California.
"With lights alone, I felt we were not fulfilling our potential. I felt that solar could be used to power not just lights but also a wide range of other applications, such as schools, clinics, water-pumping systems and wireless Internet access. I wanted to expand our mandate."
The organization has adopted what Mr. Freling calls a "whole village" model in which solar projects are chosen by the residents of rural communities and equipment is bought by individuals, families or groups using micro-credit financing.
Villagers, both men and women, are trained to install solar systems and to provide any maintenance or repairs that may be needed.
Some communities have also incorporated solar into school studies – a practice now becoming common in U.S. schools, such as in Vermont and California, as well.
The broader mission SELF has embraced has been validated by the success of a project in Benin, Africa, just west of Nigeria.
Working with an expert on drip irrigation – Dov Pasternak of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics – the Solar Electric Light Fund used solar modules to power water pumps to efficiently irrigate vegetable gardens.
"We were approached by the local community and took on the ambitious goal of bringing electricity to more than 40 villages and 100,000 people, and to use the energy for a whole range of applications," says Mr. Freling. "When we did a needs assessment, we found that the most critical problem was food insecurity, especially during the six-month dry season of November through April.
"From previous experience I knew that drip irrigation could be a solution. I spoke to a lot of experts about it, and one of them was Dov Pasternak, who developed the 'Africa Market Garden,'" a project that trains small-plot farmers to transition from grain production to growing fruits and vegetables that not only improve the nutrition of farming families but also can be sold for profit.
Mr. Pasternak placed water barrels on concrete blocks a few feet or more above small farm fields, then ran drip irrigation lines from the water barrels to the growing plants.
Drip irrigation is both inexpensive and highly efficient at getting water to the roots of plants in arid regions.
A drawback of the market garden was that the water pumps were powered by diesel generators, which had a low initial cost but a high continuing fuel cost. They also demanded repeated maintenance and spare parts, which could be expensive and hard to get, and required workers trained to make repairs.
The Solar Electric Light Fund's project powered the pumps with solar modules. The solar equipment had a higher initial cost, but required no fuel, very little maintenance, and little training to operate. Because the water was pumped during daytime hours, no batteries were necessary.
The result over two years, according to a study published recently in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was a significant increase in the nutrition and incomes of villagers.
"Though photovoltaic systems are often dismissed out-of-hand due to high up-front costs, they have long lifetimes, and in the medium term, cost less than liquid-fuel-based pumping systems," said a report on the study, led by Jennifer Burney, a postdoctoral scholar in the Program on Food Security and the Environment at Stanford University.
The researchers reported that because of such low long-term costs, "photovoltaic drip irrigation systems could be an important source of poverty alleviation and food security in the marginal environments common to sub-Saharan Africa."
In addition to using solar to power lights and to grow food, "another very important aspect has been the opportunity we've found to marry solar energy and electronic communication," says Mr. Freling.
Solar equipment has been used by SELF and others to provide Internet access, cell-phone service and solar-powered WiFi networks in remote areas. "To bring electronic voice and data capabilities to a poor rural village is a tremendous way to open them up to the wider world," Mr. Freling says.
The Solar Electric Light Fund is "technology-agnostic," Mr. Freling says – it has used a variety of panels from many manufacturers, including both crystalline silicon and thin-film types. "Our hope is that as the solar industry grows, we will be able to receive more in-kind contributions and possibly direct financial aid," he says, noting with gratitude a recent grant from the SunPower Foundation, which is affiliated with the California-based solar panel manufacturer.
"We're simply not equipped to take on as many projects as we could be doing," because of limited funding, Mr. Freling says, although SELF did grow during 2009, expanding its staff and its reach. "There's so much more that we can and should be doing."
Immediately after the earthquake in Haiti, the fund diverted solar modules from another Haiti location to Port-au-Prince to help power an emergency field hospital established by Partners In Health. It is planning to ramp up its work there dramatically as Haiti rebuilds.
The Solar Electric Light Fund has now completed electrification projects in about 20 countries, including in New Orleans and in a Navajo community in northeastern Arizona. With the solar industry growing rapidly around the world, rural solar electrification has become a major focus of governments in China and India, both of which are in the process of bringing solar electricity to thousands of villages.
In Africa, Zambia's Rural Electrification Authority recently announced a major funding allotment for solar electricity and water pumps in remote communities. In Kenya, where, as in Haiti, only a fraction of households are connected to the grid, sales of lower-cost solar equipment have spawned a growing entrepreneurial market. In the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, the government is considering using solar for crop irrigation.
The growth of solar power in the United States can only help, Mr. Freling adds.
"As volume goes up and prices come down, it will make it easier to do our job," he says. "As more people become interested in solar electricity, and grow to understand and appreciate it more in this country, and learn about the effects it can have in other parts of the world, the better chance we have to draw upon this increased interest and appreciation in order to help bring solar's benefits to places that otherwise would not have it."
He says his own appreciation of solar electricity is deeply rooted.
"Part of it is the intellectuality of it," he says. "I've always had a love of solar. It's a beautiful thing to take photons and transfer them into electrons that can be used in so many ways; it's a beautiful technology."
His initial volunteer work in China's Gansu province for the Solar Electric Light Fund made an indelible impression.
"I got to see families flip a switch and have electric lights come on for the first time," he says. "To be able to bring light into a household in some of the world's most remote and poorest regions and to see how much it does for a family – getting to experience it firsthand is what did it for me. It's such a compelling experience."
In Haiti, where Partners In Health co-founder Dr. Paul Farmer is an iconic figure, nine more of the group's clinics on the Central Plateau still get nearly all of their electricity from diesel. These clinics have been treating refugees fleeing from Port-au-Prince and the coast.
SELF plans to accelerate its timeline for installing solar-electric systems of at least 10 kilowatts each at all of the Partners In Health clinics.
"Partners In Health is at the leading edge of providing quality health care in Haiti," says Mr. Freling. "The faster these medical centers can switch from a primary reliance on diesel generators to using solar power, the sooner the Haitian people will have reliable access to the high quality of care that Partners In Health provides."
But Mr. Freling doesn't want to stop there. He wants to start there.
"As Haiti rebuilds," he says, "solar energy has to be a big part of its future. This is an opportunity to put Haiti on a sustainable path. The country is blessed with an abundance of sunshine. Why not tap into that resource? From schools to homes to hospitals and streetlights, the crisis has presented a chance to brighten Haiti's future. Without power, the Haitian people will never climb out of poverty. Solar must play a vital role in rebuilding Haiti."
Michael Balchunas, a free-lance writer, is a former editor and reporter at newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and The Hartford Courant.