As we prepare to celebrate Earth Day 2019 (https://www.earthday.org/earthday/) , it’s easy to celebrate solar for creating clean energy that avoids the strip-mining, air- and water-pollution associated with traditional energy generation. If I said, “Solar saves lives,” you’d probably think about the lives saved by avoiding pollution.
In some parts of the world, however, solar an even more direct role.
I recently stumbled across some social media posts from my friend and solar installer, Gary Easton. He was installing solar in west Africa in the civil-war and Ebola-ravaged country of Liberia. It was a chance meeting at an Earth Day celebration a year ago that led him to start making trips to Africa, along with a small team, which included his 16-year-old son, Evan. Gary has seen, first-hand, how solar can save lives in third-world countries.
When I asked him to describe Liberia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberia), Gary’s first thoughts are, “Post-apocalyptic. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen,” he says. After sunset in Monrovia, the Liberian capital and a city of over a million people, the only lights come from the fires burning everywhere. Imagine a city the size of Dallas at night without electricity. I’ll be honest – I can’t.
Liberia was founded in the early 1800s as a place where free African-Americans could migrate. By the 1950s, Liberia had become one of the most successful African countries, but a series of military coups, counter-coups, and uprisings among many ethnic groups led to two civil wars in the late 20th century. In 2003, a peace agreement was signed, and democratic elections were held in 2005.
The Ebola crisis of 2014-15 added insult to injury in this fragile place. Already gutted clinics struggled to contain the epidemic as international attention focused on Liberia. As the calamity abated, workers hired to do the difficult work were often not paid, so they “paid themselves” by looting the clinics. “This was more than looting. They took everything,” Easton says. “Hospitals were stripped, wires from transmission towers, even corrugated metal roofing. Everything.”
One single-room, rural clinic where Easton visited serves nearly 8,000 people with one doctor. Gary’s sense of incredulity hadn’t waned since his return home. “People walk for days, where it’s 105o F every day, to be treated,” he said. And they don’t come for cuts or scrapes. “They’re serious, acute conditions and infections.” Even most natural childbirth is done by families and midwives back in the villages. If a mother arrives at a clinic, she is likely in deep trouble, requiring a C-section. If she arrives after dusk, the surgery is done by the faint glow of a phone screen, because there’s no electricity even for light.
Now, it’s a priority of the government to bring some stability to the nation’s hospitals and clinics, with special emphasis on infant mortality and the health of mothers. Hospitals like CB Dunbar Maternity Hospital, northeast of Monrovia, serve 50,000 – 60,000 people, admitting 500-600 each month and performing 5-6 C-sections each day. There is no electrical grid to speak of. Though the government has supplied many generators, hospitals and clinics can rarely afford the diesel fuel to operate them. Solar, with its free fuel from the sun, was an obvious choice. Gary and his crew installed a 24-panel solar array to supply 7200 watts of power to run the operating rooms and lighting.
The electricity from solar can also be used at small clinics to run coolers, vital in a place where blood or vaccines spoil easily in the heat. Gary tells of one clinic where, as people are admitted for surgery, a team is sent to the village to gather blood of the proper type for infusion in the patient. “They literally knock on doors until they find a donor to gather blood from for the surgery. It has to be collected fresh because they don’t have electricity to keep it cool.” Solar arrays, installed with theft-proof hardware, can mean the difference between life and death.
In Liberia, solar and smart phones are “leapfrogging” older technology like the traditional electric grid and landline phones. Very modest photovoltaic systems allow hospitals and clinics to operate in order to provide the most basic of human health services. The light it provides replaces kerosene lanterns, improving indoor air-quality and human health. It brings light to schools, pumped-water to villages, and charges smart phones that farmers can use to help trade their goods. Solar is literally a flicker of light in the darkness, saving lives every day.
And Gary? He’s hooked. When I asked him if he’d go back, he said, “We’re meeting tomorrow for lunch to plan next year’s trip.”Jeff Wilson has hosted nearly 200 episodes on HGTV, the DIY Network, and PBS. His book, The Greened House Effect (https://www.chelseagreen.com/product/the-greened-house-effect/) follows the deep energy retrofit of his family’s 75-year-old home to reduce their energy bills by over 90% while making the home a more comfortable, healthier place to live. www.jeffwilsonregularguy.com.