Saving Lives With Solar Power

BY Spencer Michels  April 4, 2012 at 4:00 PM EDT

What’s as easy as lighting up a room — say a hospital delivery room? You’d be surprised.

In much of Africa and other poor areas, electricity is scarce and unreliable. Hospitals and clinics in developing countries often use flashlights or kerosene lamps, which are inadequate or pollute the air. Doctors or midwives may not be able to see what they’re doing if a woman goes into labor during nighttime hours, and it could be nearly impossible for health care workers to save the mother’s or baby’s life if there are any complications during the delivery. Darkness makes medical care a huge gamble — a gamble that is often lost. It also forces many clinics or hospitals to close at night.

Estimates say 300,000 health clinics worldwide don’t have reliable electricity and therefore don’t have reliable lighting once darkness falls. It seems such a simple problem, but of course it is not.

A few years ago, Laura Stachel, an OB-GYN based in Berkeley, Calif., traveled to Northern Nigeria to study why so many women were dying in childbirth. She was shocked.

“What I saw were some of the sickest patients I’d ever seen in my life — probably more complications than I’d seen in my entire career,” she said. “Yet the hospital did not have a reliable source of electricity. I watched (cesarean sections) where the lights would go out and the doctors literally finished with my own flashlight.”

Stachel, who had stopped delivering babies because of a back injury, emailed her husband, Hal Aronson, who knew a bit about solar electricity. She asked him to tinker with a solar solution to the clinics’ electricity problem. He went to work designing a simple suitcase filled with solar panels, a battery, LED lights and plugs that could be set up in a remote clinic. The solar panels would convert sunlight to electricity, which would be stored in the battery. The battery would then power the LED lights illuminating the delivery room.

After a lot of experimentation, the solar suitcase worked. Stachel could bring the suitcases to remote hospitals and clinics across the developing world. After installation in one hospital, maternal deaths decreased by 70 percent. “And they were no longer turning away patients at night, so their ability to see patients increased by about 16 percent,” Stachel said.

Stachel and Aronson set up the nonprofit We Care Solar and started making and improving the solar suitcase. The suitcase mostly consists of off-the-shelf technology — lights, batteries and cords available at most hardware stores. Some elements were made specifically for the project, such as specially sized solar panels and an almost indestructible light. As development continued, the suitcase became more efficient and easier to operate. But with 300,000 clinics experiencing the darkness problem, the few suitcases Stachel and Aronson could produce seemed like a drop in the bucket.

Now they’re turning to others for advice and support. We Care Solar is working with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Ashok Gadgil, an environmental engineer who invented the revolutionary Darfur stove, which is used in many developing countries. Gadgil advised We Care Solar to treat their suitcase technology differently than you’d take care of a car. “We assume that there is a mechanic — there is a guy who will inflate your tires,” Gadgil said. “There is somebody who will tune it up. He’ll find spare parts. He’ll find a gasoline infrastructure. You’ll find roads that are paved and maintained. That’s how we assume it.”

But when those things are absent, the car — or the solar technology — must have a backup, Gadgil said. And those elements are often absent for the solar-light setup Aronson and Stachel developed.

“No single technology, no single piece of machinery has infinite life. It’s going to fail,” Gadgil said. “And what we need … is a backup system that would pay attention to diagnostics, placement and assessment — or just get a new suitcase.” In other words, be ready to replace parts in an area where there is no Home Depot, no Fed Ex, no electricity grid.

In addition, We Care Solar must figure out how to boost its production from 160 suitcases — the current number — to the 300,000 or more that Stachel believes are needed around the world. And she’d like to get the cost of the suitcase down from $1,500 to less than $1,000. The nonprofit is looking for partners, donors and groups such as the World Health Organization to help them scale up. WHO has already indicated interest in the project and is helping with a study of the technology in Liberia.

Despite the challenges, Stachel and Aronson have come a long way. Now, they realize, they still have a long way to go.

Watch Spencer’s broadcast report on this subject: