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Put a needle, thread, and a button on the table. Now, turn out the lights. Try to sew the button on your shirt. Imagine you are suturing a surgical patient. That’s what doctors in rural, impoverished, or earthquake damaged areas are trying to do every day. As darkness descends, they have no lights to complete, or begin necessary surgeries. A unique partnership between an obstetrician and a teacher of renewable energy is changing that. One-by-one, they are providing solar power to bring electricity to clinics in Africa and Mexico. Haiti is recently benefiting, also, from their innovative solar suitcase design. An OB-GYN doctor from Berkeley, California, Laura Stachel, was focused on emergency obstetric care in Nigeria. While there, she discovered that lack of electricity contributed to poor health services, and decided to do something about it. Dr. Stachel joined forces with teacher Hal Aronson who has a PhD in environmental sociology and co-directs the Solar Schoolhouse. Together, they founded WE CARE Solar [Women’s Emergency Communication and Reliable Electricity].
To begin with, the non-profit organization designed and installed a photovoltaic system that powered lighting, medical equipment, a blood bank refrigerator, and communication equipment in a hospital in Northern Nigeria. Why Nigeria? One in thirteen rural Nigerian girls are likely to die in childbirth due to insufficient medical facilities.
Now, with overhead lights in the labor, delivery, and operating rooms; dependable mobile communications for hospital staff; functioning surgical equipment; and LED headlamps illuminating the tasks of night workers, chances of survival are increasing. WE CARE is realizing its mission to reduce maternal mortality in developing regions. More than half a million women die giving birth each year, 99 percent of them in the countries WE CARE is attempting to serve.
Following the success of the solar panel installations, WE CARE wanted something more easily deployed. They managed to cram a portable solar electric system into a suitcase. The powerhouse in a box charges walkie-talkies and cell phones for communication between the clinic and on-call doctors, while it powers two critically needed overhead LED lights. A suitcase also contains LED headlamps that have their own rechargeable batteries. Volunteers started delivering the solar suitcases in June 2009.
Tim McDougal, a building contractor and high school teacher, jumped in to help supply suitcase units. McDougal was inspired by Stachel's Solar Schoolhouse Summer Institute presentation. He initiated a Solar Suitcase Project for his engineering students at an Elk Grove, California high school. His project met several goals: to get kids working with solar electricity, make them aware of global health care issues, and involve them in community service.
So how do you build a solar suitcase? You’ll need several important components: solar panels, sealed batteries, a charge controller, headlamps, LED lights for room lighting, a battery charger, walkie-talkies or power cords for cell phones, and, Stachel adds, “a whole lot of love”. Usually, putting a unit together costs about $1,000, but McDougal’s class makes a portion of the solar suitcase for around $350. However, it still needs to be outfitted with solar panels, the wires, lights, batteries, and lamp cords, as well as the flashlights, headlamps, and communication equipment. Students are bankrolling their manufacturing efforts with fundraising activities.
The WE CARE team consists of individuals from academia, industry, and collaborating institutions. Tom Ohlsson, radio engineer and owner of Red Dog Radios, designed a system to extend the range of the Nigerian doctors’ two way ICOM radios up to 10-12 miles so they could be reached in an emergency. One Million Lights supplied BOGO lights - flashlights charged by a small handle-based solar panel. The flashlights replaced candles that were used to dispel darkness for care providers in a health care center in Zaria.
Everbright Solar, a solar module manufacturer, worked with WE CARE to create portable, suitcase sized, solar panels that won’t break as they travel to their destination. WE CARE is looking at portable ultrasound devices and laptop computers that can ride along. They tested different 12 V DC light bulbs and rechargeable headlamps to find the toughest products for clinical care.
News of the solar suitcases spread quickly. UNICEF in Uganda asked to try out a unit. Suitcases have been placed nine countries, including Rwanda and Tanzania, with deliveries scheduled for Burma and Zimbabwe.
In January, WE CARE was able to mail seven solar suitcases to Haiti to assist medical relief efforts. In their own way, WE CARE is responding to pleas such as the sign encountered by Georgianne Nienaber while visiting Haiti. To address that country’s culture, the instruction manual is being into Creole.
A group serving a tent city in Haiti of 100,000 inhabitants had huge energy demands. WE CARE stepped up and augmented their solar suitcase with bigger solar modules and an inverter.
Although her personal focus is alleviating trauma for birthing mothers, Stachel and Aronson’s innovative suitcases can be the catalyst for a myriad of possibilities. Envision electricity for schools, emergency services, and even homes in developing areas that have little or no infrastructure.
One candle may be able to light the world, but today Solar Suitcases are lighting medical facilities and saving lives. What will these traveling power boxes be doing tomorrow? You can hear Dr. Stachel on YouTube or join the Supporters of WE CARE by donating on line.
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