Solar Suitcases Travel To The World's Powerless When huge earthquakes hit Haiti and Chile recently, teams of doctors from California flew there to help. But physicians in disaster zones are often hampered by the critical lack of something often taken for granted: reliable power. Now, a California couple's handmade solar power kits are filling that need. From member station KQED Rachel Dornhelm reports.
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Solar Suitcases Travel To The World's Powerless

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Solar Suitcases Travel To The World's Powerless

Solar Suitcases Travel To The World's Powerless

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A California obstetrician is among the many people helping with the ongoing relief effort in Haiti. Physicians in disaster zones often work without reliable access to electricity. Laura Stachel's handmade solar-powered kits are filling that need.

Rachel Dornhelm has this profile.

Dr. LAURA STACHEL: It's really important that you remember what to do when you're in the field, so I'm going to open up one of the solar suitcases.

RACHEL DORNHELM: Laura Stachel is crouching on the floor of her Berkeley kitchen. She lifts the cover of a black carry-on. There are no clothes inside, just a sheet of plywood mounted with four electrical components.

Dr. STACHEL: Okay. Do you remember what these wires are for?

Mr. PAUL LECOURSIER: These are the external connectors that go to the solar panel.

Dr. STACHEL: That's right. So...

Mr. LECOURSIER: These fit into the circuit breaker.

DORNHELM: Stachel's quizzing aid volunteer Paul Lecoursier(ph), who's leaving for earthquake-ravaged Haiti in a few days. He's going to take this solar suitcase with him and plans to deliver it by donkey to a remote medical clinic that currently depends on candles for light.

Dr. STACHEL: Right. So, we have a charge controller that's regulating the energy that's coming in from the panel...

DORNHELM: Stachel sounds like she might be a solar engineer. She's actually a medical doctor, an obstetrician whose idea for the suitcase spun out of her work in maternal child health in Nigeria. She says she was observing a hospital there in 2008 when she realized for several hours each day power was rationed.

Dr. STACHEL: One of the first cases that I watched, which was a C-section, the lights completely went out during a C-section and the physicians had to finish by flashlight. There were other situations where midwives were taking care of women who were bleeding to death who needed emergency surgeries but there was no phone system to actually call a doctor.

DORNHELM: Stachel says she described the problems in emails to her husband, who does work on solar for a living. He suggested a sun-powered solution. When she got home, they designed a large permanent solar installation for the hospital, but Stachel insisted on a smaller test run first.

Dr. STACHEL: So, I asked him to create something I could bring in my suitcase that I could take through customs without having to declare any special equipment.

DORNHELM: Stachel says after seeing how it could power LED lights and walkie-talkies, no one at the Nigerian hospital would let her take the trial suitcase away. Suddenly, she was getting requests for solar suitcases from medical clinics all over Nigeria, more recently from all the world. And that's how their organization, WE CARE Solar, was born.

Mr. HAL ARONSON: We didn't mean to turn our house into the solar suitcase factory but it happened. It's been fun.

DORNHELM: That's Stachel's husband, Hal Aronson. He says the suitcases don't just provide light and communication, they can be expanded to power equipment like ultrasound and suction machines. Each suitcase costs about a thousand dollars for the materials. The husband-wife team are scraping together those funds from their personal savings and donations.

The thousand-dollar price tag doesn't include labor. But Stachel and Aronson's infectious enthusiasm has been a boost, netting help from U.C. Berkeley students, solar hobbyists, even a class of high-schoolers.

Mr. KYLE BETANCOURT: So, now we're beginning to drill the holes in the template where all the wires are going to eventually go.

DORNHELM: Like this engineering class at Cosumnes Oaks High School, just outside Sacramento.

Mr. BETANCOURT: I'm Kyle Betancourt(ph). I'm a sophomore. I think it's really cool that we can help save lives in just other countries without even having to be there.

DORNHELM: Betancourt's teacher heard about the suitcases at a solar education workshop last summer. So far, the class has made 12 suitcases. They're working on four more that UNICEF requested for Uganda. Statchel says there are about 20 units now working in Nigeria, Tanzania, Mexico, Haiti and the Thai-Burmese border.

Dr. STACHEL: One of our dreams is to teach people how to make solar suitcases where they live so they can have their own industries and they can be supplying these things for their own communities and health care centers.

DORNHELM: In the meantime, there's a steady stream of visitors to their house, like Paul Lecoursier, who's heading off to Haiti. Before he leaves their home, Statchel brings a big bag of accessories to add to the suitcase.

Dr. STACHEL: I always feel like I'm, like, handing off one of my offspring here.

Mr. LECOURSIER: I can imagine. I can understand that.

DORNHELM: Lecoursier leaves but Stachel and Aronson remain at the table working over another set of solar panels. An African doctor headed to Zimbabwe is coming by for this suitcase within the hour.

For NPR News, I'm Rachel Dornhelm.

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