When surgeons at Phebe Hospital in Liberia enter the operating theater, they wear miners' headlamps and bring cellphones.
Intermittent failure of diesel generators powering the health care facility makes these tools invaluable for illuminating patients' bodies, allowing doctors to complete surgical procedures. Sometimes, power must be shut down to conserve fuel. During the wet season, roads to the hospital can become impassable, making fuel deliveries impossible.
This expensive and unreliable electricity source was once all that was available for a hospital serving nearly 500,000 people in central Liberia. That changed this spring, when Backus-based Rural Renewable Energy Alliance helped install a solar microgrid system alongside some of the hospital's staff and other locals.
"We take our electricity for granted here," said Jason Edens, director of Rural Renewable Energy Alliance, or RREAL. "Nearly 2 billion people on Earth have no consistent access to electricity."
The solar panels will cut the hospital's fuel consumption by about one-third, Edens said, offering a savings of $150,000 to $200,000 in a year.
This was the first project completed as part of the nonprofit's Skip the Grid program, focused on making solar power possible for health care facilities and other critical infrastructure in West Africa. Developed in conjunction with the Northeast Minnesota Synod Women of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Skip the Grid is already raising funds for its next project at Curran Hospital in northern Liberia.
Edens said increasing energy security is not only important for immediate surrounding communities, but also has a global impact. Phebe Hospital, for example, was at the center of treating patients during the Ebola outbreak in 2014-15.
"If hospitals are more energy secure, they're able to achieve better health outcomes, and better health outcomes are good for all of us," Edens said. "We live in a global community, and community members are all across the world. We feel an obligation to serve."
But the mission isn't just about building solar panels. It's also about building a workforce and offering communities the chance at localized and democratic solutions to energy poverty, Edens said. The program took another step toward its mission the past two weeks, with two Phebe Hospital workers and four other Africans traveling nearly 6,000 miles to Backus for solar power training.
Edens said training others how to build solar arrays means the nonprofit's work can extend beyond the individual projects the organization commits its resources to.
"It doesn't make sense for an organization like ours to come in and simply do installations and leave and say, 'Enjoy the solar facility, we hope it's great for you,'" Edens said. "It makes much more sense to go to communities where there is an articulated need, where someone has said, 'We would benefit from this.' And work with them to not only deploy solar energy systems, but to also do workforce development and provide jobs not only for that project, but then to conduct follow-up training. Then members of those communities can develop the solar workforce and do similar projects for their own community."
Josephine Kantan is a generator operator and mechanic at Phebe Hospital. She said she watched during the three weeks the solar array installation took place and was inspired to learn it for herself.
"Right now, (the solar array) is working perfectly," Kantan said. "We are learning about how PVs (photovoltaics) work, and the different ways in which you can do your connections. ... The knowledge I have taken in here, I want to go back and teach other people that will be willing to learn what I have learned in Minnesota for the two weeks that I've been here."
The RREAL training offered by nonprofit Solar Energy International will not only reach those in West Africa, but the knowledge it offers will make its way to southeastern Africa as well.
Muzalema Mwanza is a civil engineer from Siavonga, Zambia, who is also a fellow with the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders. Mwanza said she learned of RREAL while attending a fair about new energy in Minneapolis.
Siavonga is an off-grid community along the shores of Lake Kariba, the largest man-made reservoir in the world.
"We use a lot of alternative sources of energy, like diesel generators and candles and stuff," Mwanza said. "At the moment, solar power is focused a lot on high-income earners. So I'm hoping with the training I'll get, I'll be able to implement some projects within my community in collaboration with RREAL."
Mwanza's interest in alternative energy, she said, stems from a desire to solve challenges she and other women are experiencing with an aquaculture, or fish farming, initiative in the city.
"We have some challenges with cold storage and stuff like that," Mwanza said. "I'm hoping to go back home and also train other people and give them information on what we've been learning here, with the different modern technologies that we haven't seen back home. It'll definitely be a big boost to our setup back home, because not everyone has access to the kind of information that I'm getting here."
Edens said the faith community and others in the Backus area have opened their homes and kitchens to the African visitors, ensuring they have a favorable and authentic Minnesota cultural experience.
"It is such a good news story," Edens said. "The community around here has stepped up to welcome the six trainees. ... It's just been amazing. It gives me goosebumps just telling about it."
While the training will last just two weeks, Edens has lofty goals for the effect the nonprofit will have on advancing clean energy and even diplomacy.
"Greater Minnesota is finding ways to partner across the globe, for the benefit of all of us," he said. "Diplomacy doesn't only take place from the U.S. State Department. It's about building bridges across continents. ... Workforce development is a way to throw a small pebble into a big pond and have ripples carry forward for a long time, so the impact of this training will bear fruit for decades and decades."
How to help
The Rural Renewable Energy Alliance is accepting donations to support its Skip the Grid program. Visit www.skipthegrid.org to learn more about the project and to donate. Visit https://tinyurl.com/SkiptheGrid to view RREAL's YouTube channel, which offers numerous videos about this project and others overseen by the organization.
For more information about Skip the Grid, contact RREAL at 218-947-3779.