Sunlight suitcase

Local students learn engineering skills by building photovoltaic systems that help in poor countries

Left to right, students Andrew Dau, Chase Bradshaw and Ben Chahal learn electrical engineering techniques while working on a solar suitcase that will eventually make its way to a developing country.

Left to right, students Andrew Dau, Chase Bradshaw and Ben Chahal learn electrical engineering techniques while working on a solar suitcase that will eventually make its way to a developing country.

Photo By Sena Christian

For more information about solar suitcases, visit
Full disclosure: The author’s sister works at Laguna Creek High School.

Students at an Elk Grove high school reverently call two of their classmates “the bosses.”

These two guys—Kyle Bettencourt and Gurjeet Nijjar—are veterans at assembling portable solar suitcases, which will eventually make their way to medical clinics in Haiti, Uganda, Nigeria and other developing countries that lack access to reliable sources of electricity.

Each case powers overhead LED lighting; charges walkie-talkies, laptop computers, and cell phones; and includes LED headlamps that come with rechargeable batteries. It’s no surprise that, among other things, the suitcases reduce the likelihood of women dying during childbirth, by providing reliable lighting and mobile communication in places where women often must give birth by candlelight or kerosene lamp.

“I built three suitcases, he built two,” explained Bettencourt, pointing to his co-boss, Nijjar. “It’s so, when the power goes out, doctors can see what they’re operating on. Or if doctors are not accessible, the case has walkie-talkies so the doctor has one and the hospital has one.”

The bosses’ fellow students in this mechanical engineering class—all young men who are sophomores or juniors—are quickly becoming veterans themselves, as they cut wire, position fuse boxes and charge controllers. Along the way, they learn about solar-panel theory and manufacturing, electronics and electrical wiring, and the engineering process.

“[The suitcase] is for places that don’t have power,” said student Ben Chahal. “It’s great for hospitals in poor countries.”

The project is the brainchild of two Elk Grove teachers, who saw the cases as a way to engage students in global awareness and make them world citizens while teaching them about electrical engineering and photovoltaic systems, said Cosumnes Oaks High School engineering instructor Tim McDougal. The schools partner with Women’s Emergency Communication and Reliable Electricity, or WE CARE, a Berkeley-based nonprofit organization committed to reducing maternal mortality rates worldwide. McDougal met the organization’s founder, Laura Stachel, at a conference in June of 2009.

“From that point on, it just became obvious to me that this was an amazing tool to teach students about solar power,” McDougal said.

Roughly 99 percent of maternal deaths occur in underdeveloped countries, according to Stachel. For every death, at least 20 women suffer severe complications from childbirth. But solar suitcases improve surgical lighting and telecommunication systems, which increases health workers’ ability to care for patients.

A solar suitcase—including solar panels, light bulbs, cords, battery chargers, a solar-powered flashlight and other components—costs $1,000. Because they’re slightly less complete, the ones built at Cosumnes Oaks High School cost $350 each, money that students generate solely through fundraising, McDougal said.

“This [project] is exciting for us; this is amazing,” said Eric Johnson, co-coordinator of Laguna Creek High School’s Green Energy Technology Academy.

While Johnson’s students currently don’t assemble solar suitcases—they’re making portable solar power stations this year—his sophomore students next year will build the suitcases. Johnson developed his school’s green-technology academy to teach students about renewable energy through hands-on projects in solar, wind, biofuels and electric transportation. They make biodiesel from waste vegetable oil and convert scooters into electric go-carts; the solar suitcases fit perfectly into the academy’s curriculum.

At Cosumnes Oaks High School, students take classes in computer-aided design, engineering and green-building trades, as part of the Architectural Design and Urban Planning Academy. It is through this academy’s mechanical-engineering class that students assemble the solar suitcases.

“When I started this program two years ago, I made the focus on green in every aspect of engineering, building and design, because that’s where I know the future is for these kids,” McDougal said.

The students have already donated several suitcases to WE CARE. The organization currently has 14 suitcases in the field, in Nigeria, Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, Mexico and Haiti, following the earthquake, where there remains a huge demand for reliable energy sources, as medical professionals conduct operations and childbirth at all hours and locations. Soon, the cases will be delivered to Burma and Zimbabwe, and the organization should have 20 placed by the end of February.

At the end of March, Johnson and McDougal are going on a 10-day trip to central Nigeria to hand-deliver and install the students’ solar suitcases at community centers in three remote villages, as part of a missionary trip with their church. The maternal mortality ratios in Nigeria are among the highest in the world: 1,100 women die for every 100,000 live births. This compares with the United States’ ratio of around 11 deaths per 100,000 births. In some rural parts of northern Nigeria, one in 13 women will die from childbirth.

Back in the classroom, Bettencourt and Nijjar help other students assemble more solar suitcases, offering advice and reflecting on the project’s value.

“It’s a lot of fun to build stuff for saving lives,” Bettencourt said. “It gives you a good feeling inside.”