Light streamed through the open door of Hal Aronson’s shed on a recent sunny day. Inside, a small stack of yellow suitcases sat waiting to be shipped across the world, where doctors and hospital workers in some of the poorest countries would be able to carry a day’s sunshine into even the darkest of nights.
These "solar suitcases" contain a compact solar electric system that can power lights, blood banks and small devices like suction machines — all on just five hours of charge.
After inventing the suitcase right here in his Berkeley backyard in 2008, Aronson founded the organization We Care Solar with his wife Laura Stachel. Around 100 of the compact solar electic systems are now up and running all over the world, including seven countries in Africa, as well as Haiti, Mexico, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, India, Burma, Nepal and Tibet.
In places like Nigeria, where electricity is rare and doctors work by kerosene lamps and candles, a single suitcase could mean the difference between life and death.
The maternal mortality rate in Nigeria is the second highest in the world, with around one in every eight women dying in labor. Since women in Africa usually give birth at home, most of the expectant mothers who arrive at hospital are already in bad shape. “They wait until something goes wrong,” explained Aronson. But without electricity, the hospitals often have to turn women away.
The solution was simple to Aronson, who set to work in his shed creating a solar electricity device that could be easily operated and withstand harsh environments.
The first four systems were sent to a hospital in Nigeria, along with operational instructions in multiple languages. The first portable system was created when Aronson bolted components to a spare plank of wood from the couple’s kitchen. Upon receipt, hospital staff said they could use it right away and didn’t need to wait for a larger system.
“The idea that this little thing I could make would be that helpful to people was so exciting,” said Hal.
Word soon spread, and other hospitals began requesting systems. Then, when the Haiti earthquake hit in 2010, local doctors who were heading over there to help out asked if they could take some of the solar systems to provide electricity in the tent cities they would be working from.
We Care Solar won technology and humanitarian awards and gained recognition as local and national media outlets picked up the story. Donations and funding began flooding in from all over the place, including The MacArthur Foundation and The Blum Center for Developing Economies at UC Berkeley.
Then, in January 2011, the organization was asked to take part in a World Health Organization (WHO) project to find out if electricity plays a part in the maternal mortality rate in Liberia. The “solar suitcase” was born, and the system would be mass-produced for the first time.
“I’m kind of a solar evangelist because I think the sun gives a very positive sense of what we could be doing,” said Aronson. “It’s abundant, it’s bright and it provides all the energy we need in one way or another.”
Aronson began working with solar energy in 1983 when he built a solar home for his parents in Bonnie Doon near Santa Cruz. For more than a decade, he has been teaching renewable energy in Bay Area schools, including .
We Care Solar aims to send out 500 kits in 2012. Since every standalone solar electric system is designed to last 10 to 20 years, "each one makes a difference," said Aronson.