Haitian orphanage solar-powered, thanks to Bellingham volunteers

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDDecember 27, 2013 

Dana Brandt, the founder and owner of Bellingham's Ecotech Energy Systems, and employee John Wilkins recently answered a call to build a solar-powered electrical system for an orphanage in Haiti.

Wilkins, a 39-year-old graduate of Bellingham Technical College, and his wife, Blaine sixth-grade teacher Sarah Fisher, are raising three children in Bellingham. Wilkins, who attended high school in Utah, learned to love skiing there and is now a volunteer with Mount Baker Ski Patrol.

Question: John, what led you and Dana to help in Haiti?

Answer: Dana got a call from (former Whatcom County residents) Mike and Chris Leland of New Generation Ministries. They are running Good Shepherd Children's Village with about 60 kids on the outskirts of Gonaives, Haiti. It's a city about the geographic size of Bellingham but with about 300,000 people north of Port au Prince.

Q: What were their needs?

A: They were spending about $500 each month on a diesel-powered electrical system. They weren't on the grid, which can get complicated (because of bargaining on power costs). They asked us if we could help. We flew down early in October.

Q: How large is the children's village?

A: It's three concrete buildings around land about half the size of a soccer field. There's a school and a clinic there. We took a look at the layout and calculated the materials and time it would take to install them.

Q: Who supplied the materials?

A: We purchased the solar panels through Platt Electric Supply of Bellingham. We got an inverter from OutBack Power Systems of Arlington, which is part of Bellingham's Alpha Technologies.

We installed a 3.6-kilowatt system with some 15 solar panels. We taught people there how to maintain the system.

Q: How will this benefit the orphanage?

A: This has cut their power cost about 90 percent, to $50 per month. It's an example of how a Third World country can maximize the benefits of reliable power and green technology. It now makes electricity available 24/7, which it wasn't before, and will help both the school and the clinic's ability to store medical supplies. Students will be able to study at night.

Q: Would you want to do something like this again?

A: Absolutely. Dana earlier did an electrical project in Africa. He has a master's degree covering sustainable systems, and we both really believe in the benefits of green power.

Q: How did you become interested in solar power?

A: I survived seven layoffs at my previous job, but I finally got laid off (during the Great Recession). Some friends told Dana about me in 2008. Our first job together was at an indoor tennis court at Whitman College in Walla Walla.

I felt it was just what I was looking for, combining an opportunity to work outside, to learn a new trade and to help take humanity in the right direction. I do everything from site evaluation to system design to installation, along with some consulting.

Q: Has solar power improved as an investment?

A: The return on investment has steadily been shrinking in terms of time and is now about five to seven years. The industry projects 20 percent growth each year over the next 10 to 15 years. The outlook has really improved for solar power.

Q: What inspired your interest in solar power?

A: While I was a teenager in Utah I would sometimes help my father, who was early on inspired by green energy. I eventually realized I wanted to get back to that.

Michelle Nolan is a Bellingham freelance writer.

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