TOPICS > Health

‘Solar Suitcase’ Sheds Light on Darkened Delivery Rooms

April 4, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
After witnessing the consequences of power outages in Nigeria's health facilities, obstetrician Dr. Laura Stachel came up with a solution: a suitcase containing elements to produce and store solar energy. Spencer Michels reports on the life-saving device that aims to reduce maternal mortality rates in the developing world.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, a California couple develops a small and innovative solution to a power problem that’s causing thousands of deaths a continent away.

NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels has the story.

SPENCER MICHELS: In crowded hospital emergency and delivery rooms, the pressure is on and so are the lights. In fact, electricity powers dozens of medical devices, keeping patients alive: heart monitors, refrigerators for bags of blood, ventilators.

But imagine if a doctor was delivering a baby or performing an operation and the lights suddenly went out.

WOMAN: Welcome to the world, little one. And the lights are. . .

DR. LAURA STACHEL, WE CARE Solar: We estimate that 300,000 health facilities do not have reliable electricity around the world. So this is a huge problem.

SPENCER MICHELS: Berkeley, Calif., obstetrician Dr. Laura Stachel has witnessed power outages and their often tragic consequences in health facilities throughout Africa.

DR. Laura Stachel: I would watch C-sections where the lights would go out and the doctors literally finished with my own flashlight. I watched women fighting for their survival in the labor room with complications, and the only light was a kerosene lantern that barely provided any illumination.

SPENCER MICHELS: After a back injury ended her career delivering babies, Stachel visited a maternity ward in northern Nigeria in 2008 to learn why so many African women were dying in childbirth.

Nigeria has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. Tens of thousands of women die there each year while giving birth.

DR. LAURA STACHEL: I had expected that maybe women were dying from very unusual conditions.

But what I saw were conditions that I had treated as an obstetrician for years in this country, but I had never associated with death. So, things like high blood pressure can be treated with medication. Someone who has a baby too big to fit through the birth canal can get a C-section for delivery. A number of the conditions — I saw infections. They need antibiotics. But all of those things depend upon procedures that depend upon light.

SPENCER MICHELS: The hospital Stachel visited was actually connected to the local power grid, but as in many low-income countries, electricity was unreliable. And, worse, most rural health facilities aren’t even connected to a power grid.

Stachel decided to enlist the help of her husband, Hal Aronson, a self-taught solar expert and teacher, to help light the maternity ward.

HAL ARONSON, WE CARE Solar: I thought, wow, what an opportunity for solar. It’s very simple to do a stand-alone solar electric system that will keep the lights on all night.

SPENCER MICHELS: In the backyard workshop of their Berkeley home, Aronson quickly began designing a solar-powered battery system that Laura could take back to the hospital.

HAL ARONSON: So I built something that was basically like this, which is just a piece of plywood. Here, I’ll turn it where you can see it. And this is the charge controller. This is the battery to store the energy. And then these wires would go out to a solar panel.

SPENCER MICHELS: Stachel insisted on a few refinements.

DR. LAURA STACHEL: I said, could you make this easy enough for me to use and make it small enough that it will fit in my suitcase? Because I’m hoping to get through customs without a lot of raised eyebrows.

SPENCER MICHELS: The prototype she delivered to the hospital and a subsequent larger solar installation which powered lights and a communications system had dramatic effects. She says maternal mortality rates in the hospital dropped by nearly 70 percent.

DR. LAURA STACHEL: What we were told was that they were able to provide care through the night much more easily. Nurses told us they were no longer afraid to go to work at night, that more patients began to come to the clinic, that they didn’t delay certain procedures until the morning.

SPENCER MICHELS: Three years and six models later, Aronson and Stachel have turned their creation into a rugged, self-contained system they call a Solar Suitcase. And they’ve founded a nonprofit to build and distribute them called WE CARE Solar — 160 of the devices are currently being used in 17 different countries, including Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

HAL ARONSON: When you open it up, you have a complete solar electric system. There’s the solar panel right here. Over here’s the battery. This is the charge controller, so I have got the light here. And this is a switch for the lights. And you’re lit up.

SPENCER MICHELS: It works.

(LAUGHTER)

HAL ARONSON: It works.

SPENCER MICHELS: Is this enough light to deliver a baby or do a C-section or whatever?

HAL ARONSON: Absolutely. If it was dark, I could show you that this will actually light up a small room.

SPENCER MICHELS: Currently, each of the suitcases costs $1,500. And they contain two solar panels that are installed on the roofs of clinics. The panels charge the battery in the suitcase, which can be mounted on a wall or kept portable.

When fully charged, the battery can power two LED lights for nearly 20 hours. The case also provides outlets to charge communications equipment like walkie-talkies and cell phones. The system was designed to be easy to install and operate by local health workers and to withstand heat, rain and harsh treatment.

HAL ARONSON: I’ll turn this on and check this out. That is a reasonably durable light.

SPENCER MICHELS: Wow.

HAL ARONSON: If they drop it, it still works. And that was very important, because, you know, lights can be dropped. This light will work for 20 years.

SPENCER MICHELS: But some experts say there are serious issues that need to be addressed when exporting such technology.

ASHOK GADGIL, environmental engineer, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory: Developing countries are a graveyard of well-intentioned technologies from the First World.

SPENCER MICHELS: Environmental engineer Ashok Gadgil has been consulting with WE CARE Solar. He developed the Darfur Stove that has revolutionized cooking in the developing world. And he’s a senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

He says he’s impressed with what he’s seen so far, but he says if Stachel and Aronson are to succeed, they must address how the system will be maintained over the long term.

ASHOK GADGIL: No single technology, no single piece of machinery has infinite life. When one wants to introduce a technology into society, it needs social placement. The technology needs links and threads that connect it to a Web of experts or spare parts dealers or maintenance people or diagnostic technicians which will keep it going.

SPENCER MICHELS: How do you know that, after a year, this thing isn’t going to get rusted or break or whatever?

HAL ARONSON: That is a major concern of ours. So what we’ve done is we have chosen the best-quality components. The battery technology is our main area for improvement. So this is a standard sealed lead acid battery. And it should last a couple of years. The rest of the system is designed to last 10 to 20 years. We would love a battery that could hold up for five or 10 years.

SPENCER MICHELS: Initially, assembling the suitcases one by one in their backyard with the help of friends and volunteers, they are now working with a nearby manufacturing plant to produce 30 a month, still a far cry from the massive worldwide need.

They admit that their small-scale operation must ramp up. For now, private donations and several foundations are supporting their efforts. They want to eventually lower the cost of the suitcase and enable it to power other medical tools, such as a suction device.

But getting the Solar Suitcase into dark delivery rooms is Stachel’s first priority.

DR. LAURA STACHEL: I think it’s an outrage that women in other countries suffer 100-fold higher risk of dying in childbirth than women in this country.

So it’s really important to me that the most vulnerable populations, which are women, childbearing women and their newborns, that they’re at the front of the line. But it doesn’t mean that other populations aren’t important as well. Schools have asked for these, community centers, orphanages, refugee camps. So we think that we’re really just sitting on the tip of an iceberg.

SPENCER MICHELS: Stachel and Aronson are looking to up the production of Solar Suitcases to meet the demand. And now they’re getting cooperation from the World Health Organization, which is helping them to study the impact of the new technology.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Watch more of Spencer’s interview with Dr. Stachel and see images of the Solar Suitcase in action in Africa and Afghanistan. Our slide show is on the Rundown online.