By: Emma Kessler

During registration time last December, I was shopping around for classes that would expand my horizons. After loading up on courses, I had room for one more class. I wanted to expand my horizons a bit. I chose something that I didn’t know a lot about…Pathways to Renewable Energy. I took this course expecting to learn more about a field that I didn’t know a lot about. What I didn’t expect was that my participation in the class could make an actual difference in the world.

This class took a much more action-focused approach than I was expecting. Guest speakers, fresh from the front lines of the crusade against climate change, came to speak to us. We broke into groups and held a mock summit to discuss climate related issues. We read, researched, and debated. Through all this, we began to understand the scope of the problems we are facing. Climate change is not a standalone problem. It is laced with issues in equity and classism that have persisted through centuries. But through this understanding, we (or I) began to understand that it is possible to chip away at these problems.

Case in point: the final project. The task was to split into groups and begin developing projects that explore different climate change issues and solutions. I joined a group dedicated to developing effective, inexpensive solar generators.

A little backstory: the solar suitcase project was inspired by real needs in the Minnesota community. These issues were identified by a U of M campus group, BRIDGE.

BRIDGE, or Building Resources and Innovative Designs for Global Energy,  is an outreach group with connections as close as Washburn High School in Minneapolis and as far away as Kenya. The main goals of the group are to encourage innovation and development of solutions to climate change. To quote their official mission statement, they aim to “Expose inner-city high school students to real-world engineering and the importance of education.” Globally, BRIDGE is working with connections in Kenya to build a renewable energy center.

Through BRIDGE’s connections with local high school students, it was discovered that blackouts pose a problem for many students. Blackouts can be very challenging in the students’ area—many of them reported that they can be left without power for up to three days. Without electricity, daily tasks such as keeping food refrigerated, cooking or warming the house can be very difficult. Not to mention the fact that, in an increasingly digital world, electronics are more and more important in daily living. Much of the modern high-school student’s schoolwork requires online access to complete. Clearly, blackouts prove a challenge for basic living and for academics as well.

To assist students with this problem, the group decided to develop portable, cost-effective, and renewably sourced generators. A “solar suitcase,” if you will. We were going to come up with a design that can be developed and tested by members of BRIDGE, including the high school students!

Now, I was very excited about this project. It was tackling a local problem in a climate conscious way—what’s not to like? But I wasn’t sure that I would be much of a help. Many of my fellow group members were engineering students or at least some knowledge of technology. I, however, am not a tech-savvy person. At all. Luckily, I (and a few other team members) were able to help by researching. If there’s one thing I love to do, it’s research!

What we found was that there are many existing solar generators. One only needs to look on Amazon or in their local Home Depot to find one. However, many of these generators can be expensive, or were too small to feasibly power activities like cooking during a blackout.

What the research group did was compile a list of different preexisting generators and their features, i.e. power capacity, size, and price. This list was able to inform the design group’s decisions towards our own solar suitcase and how to make it.

And that’s where this story ends…for now. We are still in the development process for this solution. However, I think that this group of smart people can design a solution that will be very helpful for our neighbors who need it. One thing I think that everyone can take away from this is that there is always something that you can do to help, regardless of how tech- or science-savvy you are. Personally, I am very grateful for the opportunities I was given to learn and make an impact through this experience.  

 Edited for spelling, grammar, and clarity

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