Hal Aronson, co-founder of We Care Solar and We Share Solar, is transitioning to Senior Advisor. We recently spoke with Hal about the early days of We Care Solar and why he is drawn to solar education for youth.
For decades, Hal Aronson had been intrigued with solar home design and creating renewable energy curriculum for middle and high school students. Working with California teachers, Hal designed a range of hands-on projects to demonstrate the elegance of solar power. With We Care Solar, Hal saw something he had never seen before: the opportunity for solar power to save lives.
“I was given a remarkable opportunity. When my wife, Dr. Laura Stachel, went to Northern Nigeria to study the high rates of maternal mortality, she found that the hospital lacked reliable electricity. She saw midwives working by kerosene lantern and surgeons working by the ambient light from windows because there was no power for the surgical lights. Critically ill women in labor were being turned away due to lack of light.” Hal realized that solar power could be the difference between life and death.
“You can imagine how exciting it was for me, as a solar evangelist, to be presented with a problem that could be solved with solar power. To introduce the hospital administrators to solar electricity, I made a demo photovoltaic system small enough to fit into Laura’s luggage. It was designed to keep medical lights working all night and to fully recharge in three hours. The hospital insisted that this small system could save lives. They put our demo system into immediate service and soon other health facilities in Nigeria began requesting Solar Suitcases.”
Hal orchestrated backyard parties to encourage students and volunteers in California to build the suitcase-size solar electric systems for Nigerian health workers. It wasn’t long before requests for Solar Suitcases came from around the world and Hal needed a way to scale. Hal and Laura founded We Care Solar and invited Brent Moellenberg onto the team to create a Solar Suitcase that could be manufactured. And, while the organization turned to the logistics of delivering the yellow Solar Suitcases to health facilities in need, Hal returned to the classroom.
“Because I was working with teachers to do solar in the schools, it was natural to offer the Solar Suitcase as a student project. Many of our first-generation Solar Suitcases had been built by students. When our production of Solar Suitcases for healthcare shifted to the factory, teachers were disappointed. They told us that the Solar Suitcase project was often the most powerful experience of the year for their students and wanted a way to continue the project. At the same time, We Care Solar was receiving requests from energy-poor schools and children’s homes for a reliable source of power.” We began to look for a way to connect U.S. students with service-learning opportunities using solar power.
In 2013, Hal, together with board member Gigi Goldman, launched “We Share Solar,” an educational program designed to engage the heads, hands, and hearts of students. We Share Solar programs provide curriculum about energy poverty and solar power, giving students a compelling reason to learn. The solar suitcases they build are donated to energy-poor schools and community centers, where youth often lack something as basic as light for nighttime reading or studying. The program has proven effective in a wide variety of educational settings…from under-resourced public schools to well-resourced independent schools, from native reservations in the US to schools in African refugee settlements.
“We believe that our program, in which students build real solar systems to help solve real problems, is a way forward in education,” asserts Hal. In addition to introducing the elegance of renewable energy, Hal believes that solar projects offer students something essential during a time when climate change is becoming more and more evident. “Students are overwhelmed and anxious about climate change. At the same time, they find themselves sitting in classrooms preparing for futures they fear will not exist. That makes school feel irrelevant. They ask, ‘Why am I here if the world is going to end?’ This situation often leads to feelings of futility and despair. “
“We in the solar world are offering an important solution AND we offer it in a way that allows students to participate in the solution. They learn, they build, they share solar. In the We Share Solar program…they effect change NOW…in the classroom…in the present. Not 5 or 10 years from now. Teachers report to us that when students do this solar project, their anxiety is transformed into a sense of agency: they BECOME an ACTIVE part of the solution.