Solar Power: From Berkeley To Haiti and Beyond

By Raymond Barglow, Special to the Planet
Thursday January 28, 2010 - 08:31:00 AM
Assembling “solar suitcases” in Stachel's and Aronson's back yard, from left to right: Vander Covington, Matthew Marks Evans, Jabali Nash, Hal Aronson, Laura Stachel, Mark Davis, Mike Strykowski, and neighbor Glen Leggoe who donated materials to the cause.
Raymond Barglow
Assembling “solar suitcases” in Stachel's and Aronson's back yard, from left to right: Vander Covington, Matthew Marks Evans, Jabali Nash, Hal Aronson, Laura Stachel, Mark Davis, Mike Strykowski, and neighbor Glen Leggoe who donated materials to the cause.

Worldwide, half a million women die each year in childbirth, most of them in Africa and Asia. When Laura Stachel, a medical doctor who lives in Berkeley, went to Nigeria in 2008, she witnessed hospital conditions that make not only childbirth but all medical care difficult and unreliable. Resolving to change that situation, she and her husband, Hal Aronson, an educator and solar expert, formed an organization, WE CARE Solar, whose mission is “saving mothers’ lives with solar-powered light and communication.” 

When the earthquake struck in Haiti, WE CARE Solar (Women’s Emergency Communication and Reliable Electricity), consisting entirely of volunteers, raised money from families and friends to fund the purchase of materials needed to build electricity-generating “solar suitcases” to help cope with the Carribean nation’s immense medical needs. At the time, Aronson happened to be teaching a class in Berkeley on solar design and installation to community activists from Detroit and Washington, D.C., who aim to start solar construction programs in their own cities. They joined Stachel and Aronson at the couple’s home on Hillegass Avenue, which has become a factory of a kind for assembling the solar units. 

To date, these solar packages have been delivered to Partners in Health, to Angels in Haiti and to the Haiti Memorial Foundation. “As we obtain more donations,” says Stachel, “we will assemble and send out more cases.” 

Laura Stachel’s work abroad began in Nigeria, and the Daily Planet caught up with her last week as she was preparing to return there. She talked about the path she has taken from delivering babies at Alta Bates to solving medical care problems in countries such as Haiti, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Mexico. 

For 14 years, Stachel practiced medicine in obstetrics and gynecology. She left clinical practice in 2002, and in the following year began studying at UC Berkeley. She received her master’s degree and is currently writing her doctoral dissertation in the public health department. In 2008 she began a project in Nigeria. “Nigeria has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. Nigeria accounts for 2 percent of the world’s population and 11 percent of the maternal deaths in the world,” according to Stachel. “I went to Nigeria thinking that my years of clinical experience could be helpful. When I arrived and saw the conditions in the hospital, I realized that my experience was of limited use.” She found that there was no running water, electricity was available only a few hours every day, blood could not be refrigerated, and other equipment didn’t work either. “I realized that without reliable electricity and a communication system to allow nurses to quickly notify doctors of emergencies, the advanced medical skills of physicians were of little use.” 

On one occasion, says Stachel, the medical team was doing a Caeserian section when the lights went out, and “the team finished by my flashlight!” Experiences like this one led Stachel and Aronson to form WE CARE Solar. The organization now makes sun-provided electricity available to medical personnel worldwide, including two-way radios for emergency communications. Aronson designed a solar electric system for the Nigerian hospital that delivered off-grid solar-powered electricity to the operating room, labor room, maternity ward, laboratory, and a blood bank refrigerator. 

Laura Stachel recognizes that the problems that health care systems face in countries like Nigeria and Haiti aren’t only technological. “Our solar electric system doesn’t answer all the problems for a hospital,” she says. “It doesn’t address the root causes of the high maternal mortality rates: poverty, illiteracy, early marriage, no family planning, lack of transportation, and a dysfunctional medical system.”  

These social problems stem in part, Stachel says, from women’s lack of power in their communities—a situation she’d like to change: “I have seen what care is like in Nigeria and I cannot turn my back. There is no one to represent these women who show up at the hospital quite helpless, no one to be their voice. Somehow, through WE CARE Solar, people have taken notice of the issue of maternal mortality. The technology seems to have captivated people. And in this way, I feel that I have helped to give these women their voice.” 

Stachel is a consultant for the Population Reproductive Research Partnership (PRHP), which represents an alliance between Nigeria’s Ahmadu Bello University and Berkeley’s Bixby Center for Population, Health, and Sustainability. The Partnership works with Nigerian families to improve educational opportunities for girls. The goal of this project is “to delay the age of marriage and the onset of childbearing, and enhance women’s livelihood capacity and health outcomes …”  

While Stachel is working in Nigeria for 10 days, her husband Aronson remains behind here in Berkeley. He’s been teaching renewable energy in the Bay Area and up and down the state for the past decade. These days he’s continuing to oversee the construction of solar suitcases in his own home—suitcases that will travel to Haiti and other countries where a little electricity can save many lives.  

Aronson points out, however, that these energy sources are suitable for everyday use as well as emergencies. Solar energy “literally enables children to read at night and thus get an education, it enables everyday activities. Otherwise, people are in the dark, or they make fire to see. Or they need access to fossil fuels to run generators, etc., which won’t last…. The sun is available to everyone.” 


Raymond Barglow is the founder of Berkeley Tutors Network.