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December 9, 2015 | Why Do We Care About Solar? (Part II)

The Faces of Solar at COP21 (see part I)

Laura Stachel: Eliminating Childbirth Mortalities in Underserved Countries

In 2008, Dr. Laura Stachel traveled to northern Nigeria on a graduate research project. She spent two weeks observing care in a hospital as a part of a research program through University of California, Berkeley. As an obstetrician, her original purpose was to examine how to lower the staggeringly high rates of maternal death.

But the results of the experience were more salient than she expected — and not just for her project.

“There were so many people dying in childbirth. Having a child was feared.”

In the two weeks she spent in country, she witnessed more childbirth complications than she had in the rest of her career in the US. One contributing factor stunned her: the lack of reliable lighting made it impossible for doctors and midwives to perform life-saving care throughout the night.

“We saw women coming in with complications, and we didn’t even have light to adequately treat them,” she remarked.

Outraged at the how easy the solution seemed, Laura wrote to her husband, a solar energy educator, and the idea of a compact solar electric system — a Solar Suitcase, as they called it — was born. Initially using consumer-grade solar products and batteries, the suitcase was able illuminate LED lighting, two-way radios, and a fetal heart rate monitor.

The best part: the electricity came free, and produced no toxic emissions like the kerosene lanterns and diesel fuel generators that preceded them. All that was required was a few hours of sunlight each day.

Since 2009, these suitcases and the resulting non-profit We Care Solar have been tremendously successful, helping nurses and doctors to improve emergency care and save countless lives.

“I wanted a world where women and their families can celebrate birth,” Laura says. “When [midwives] tell me its really saving lives, it really hits me strongly because that’s my deepest desire.”

That deep desire has resulted in the dissemination of over 1300 Solar Suitcases to health centers in 27 different countries, and that number is only growing. That desire also led her to be named a 2013 CNN Hero and her non-profit to receive the inaugural "Powering the Future We Want" award from UNDESA this year. And Laura realizes that her work has only just begun.

"There are more than 200,000 health facilities without reliable electricity … and we are dedicated to shining a light on health care so that women will no longer die bringing life into the world.”

Adrian Grenier, An Actor for Good

Perhaps best known for his role as Vincent Chase in HBO’s Entourage, Adrian Grenier is no stranger to sustainability. He was raised by a “bit of a hippy” mother and was named a Dell Social Good Advocate earlier this year.

But unlike most celebrities, Adrian doesn’t simply act the part. He implements sustainability in his daily life too.

“I didn’t get involved [with the environmental movement] as an actor; I got involved as a human being,” he said at the Earth to Paris event on December 7. He recognizes that his VIP-status doesn’t exempt him from caring about the planet. To the contrary, it implies more responsibility, as he can use his fame as a positive force through leading by example.

One of the ways that he lives out his environmental commitment is through solar power: back in 2006, he outfitted his own home in Brooklyn with photovoltaic cells.

Even as critics started gawking at the unenticing appearance of the cells on his roof, he stood strong with his support of solar. “Energy independence is too important to me to worry about whether this meets your aesthetic approval,” he wrote to his critics on a message board. “You should all think hard about how you impact the environment yourselves.”

This strong advocacy for solar and other sustainable choices is not just a phase for Adrian. It’s a part of his character. “My mother taught me to care about other people—so I’m just doing what mommy told me.”

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Adrien Grenier speaking at the Earth to Paris event, December 7, 2015

For these true solar leaders, it’s not about a good investment, it’s not about saving a few pennies on the monthly statement, and it’s not about a sexy, hip trend of leading a sleek green lifestyle. It’s about their children, it’s about their fellow mothers, and it’s about doing the best they can for others with what they have.

Just as we all live under one sun, all of these solar changemakers are united by their concern for their fellow humans, and they see solar power as their way of acting on that concern.

“[Solar development] is, of course, the future,” UNESCO president Irina Bokova told Conergy on December 7. With the help of these solar changemakers and their deep-seated passions, this future will indeed be a bright one.

Zach Bielak is one of Conergy's Future Solar Leaders. Zach is a social sustainability research fellow who was graduated from Rice University in Houston, Texas.