Solar in a Suitcase

Suitcase-Based Solar-Electric System
Suitcase-Based Solar-Electric System
Suitcase-Based Solar-Electric System
Suitcase-Based Solar-Electric System

In Nigeria, maternal mortality rates are among the highest in the world, second only to India. For every 100,000 births, an estimated 1,100 mothers die. With the rationed and often unreliable electricity supply throughout the country, night deliveries are frequently carried out in near darkness, and clinics are forced to perform emergency cesarean sections by flashlight—or worse yet, postpone the critical procedures until daylight or electricity can be restored. 

We Care Solar (WCS) cofounders Laura Stachel, M.D., and Hal Aronson, Ph.D., hope to change that. The husband and wife team came up with the concept for a suitcase-sized solar-electric system that can be used to power LED medical task lighting, charge cell phones and batteries, and provide electricity to 12 VDC devices.

Inspired by the deplorable conditions she witnessed on a research trip to Nigeria in 2008, Stachel, a licensed obstetrician and gynecologist in California who left her practice to work in public health, enlisted her husband’s help to develop a renewable power solution that could be easily transported through customs. 

Aronson, a solar energy designer and educator in California, went to work in his shop, tinkering with spare components and different configurations. His efforts resulted in a prototype turnkey PV system that fits in a watertight, protective hard case. 

When Stachel returned to Nigeria the following year with the solar suitcase, it was clear that Aronson had hit the mark with his design. “I hadn’t intended to leave the kit there. It was an experiment at that stage. I had only intended to use it for demonstration purposes, but the people at the hospital where I worked begged me to leave it—they said it would be the difference between life and death for some, and I couldn’t argue with that,” says Stachel. 

Since then, more than 120 solar suitcases have been deployed to 15 countries. Funding to make and ship the solar suitcases, which cost about $1,500 to produce, is largely from individual donations, grants, or contributions from third-party groups.

In most cases, it is a one-on-one effort, Stachel says, where individual donations provide the funding for one case to be deployed to a particular clinic. But the group also organizes solar suitcase programs, where multiple kits are distributed throughout a region—typically as a result of grant funding secured by a nongovernmental or nonprofit organization. In this case, WCS sends volunteers to deploy the suitcases and train the users.

The latest design uses two to four 20-watt monocrystalline PV modules that were specially developed for the solar suitcase by Everbright Solar in Fremont, California. The modules are mounted on rigid substrate, weigh about half as much as a conventional framed module, and are sized to fit into the case.

The typical system includes a Morningstar ProStar 15-amp charge controller, a 15 amp-hour sealed lead-acid battery, and 6 watts of high-efficiency LED task lights—all contained in the case. The standard obstetric kit also comes with a universal cell phone charger, a AA/AAA battery charger, outlets for 12 VDC devices, a fetal heart-rate monitor, LED headlamps, and rechargeable AA and AAA batteries. WCS worked with Holly Solar Products in Petaluma, California, to develop high-efficiency lamps that are rugged enough to last up to 20 years and bright enough to conduct surgery. 

Though designed to be portable, the solar suitcase can also be used as a stationary system—the suitcase itself bolts to the wall and the modules can be mounted on a rooftop. An expansion kit is also available for using larger batteries and adding more LEDs. 

“It is an out-of-the-box, plug-and-play experience. Someone who has never done anything with solar electricity can get the system running in less than a minute. If they choose to use it for a permanent installation, then it can be fully operational within two hours of opening the kit. It is that easy to use,” Aronson says.

Though originally designed to support obstetric care, the solar suitcase has been used in a range of medical and humanitarian settings. Seven suitcases were deployed to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

The latest batch of solar suitcases sent to Nigeria contained remote monitors, so data can be collected about the function of the solar suitcases in clinical situations and ultimately be used to improve the design for future applications. Looking ahead, WCS has partnered with other groups in hopes of securing funding for nearly 150 solar suitcase requests in Uganda, Nepal, Malawi, and Haiti. Stachel and Aronson remain determined to meet demand and do what they can improve maternal healthcare around the world. Their motivation comes from the feedback they receive.

“Health workers tells us they are no longer afraid to work at night, that they can do medical procedures with ease, that they can do the job they were trained to do,” Stachel says. “Surgeons tell us the light allows them to see the tissue layers better, and they can perform surgeries more efficiently and safely.”

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