SolBus: Corvallis Residents’ Mission to ‘Solarize Ghana’

Dave Lettero and the SOlBus. Photo by Nathaniel Brodie

It was once a traditional yellow school bus, conveying schoolchildren to and from their Albany schools. Now, owing to the work and dedication of Corvallis residents Dave and Carly Lettero, it is the SolBus: a forty-foot mobile solar-education and development tool, a critical member of a team dedicated to sustainable energy and international aid.

From Albany to Accra

This May, if all goes well, the Letteros will load the SolBus with gear and drive it to Houston, where it will be shipped some 6,500 miles to Accra, Ghana. The Letteros, along with three other Americans and five Africans—the Solarize Ghana Team—will then climb aboard and spend ten weeks traveling over 1,500 miles to eight rural Ghanaian communities. They’ll spend five to seven days in each community installing a solar electric power system and giving three educational workshops: purifying water with the sun, cooking with the sun, and photovoltaic systems and maintenance.

Dave and Carly are solar energy and environmental sustainability coordinators for Volunteers for International Development and Aid (VIDA). VIDA’s mission is “to undertake construction and social development projects that enrich the quality of life in communities worldwide.” The Solarize Ghana project will focus on schools and medical clinics. With electricity, schools will be able to host evening classes for children who work fields during the day, and doctors and nurses will be able to expand clinic hours and refrigerate vaccines and medications.

“Some of these medical clinics,” Dave pointed out, “serve up to sixteen local villages. They’re seeing fifty, sixty patients a day.”

The SolBus' photovoltaic system. Photo by Nathaniel Brodie

The Letteros joined VIDA in 2010. Their first project was in Sierra Leone, installing solar power for a school in a town built for civil-war amputees. After working in the solar industry for a decade, Dave figured he was well-prepared for the project’s solar installations.

Daily life in Sierra Leone, on the other hand, was “not something I could have calculated or planned for,” Lettero recalls. “I realized that I was not in Sierra Leone to simply install and teach others about solar power, I was there to learn a lot about myself and broaden my perspectives.”

Even so, installing solar in rural West Africa isn’t like doing so in West Portland—“It’s not like you can just go out and buy standard gauge wire somewhere nearby. You have to make do with what you have, or what you can figure out.”

There’s also malaria: in 2011, after a solar project in Liberia, both Carly and Dave were stricken by life-threatening malaria. It took them nearly a year to fully recover. Yet, as evidenced by the months of work they’ve poured into the SolBus, it hasn’t dampened their enthusiasm.

photo by Nathaniel Brodie

The Letteros bought the bus on a whim in 2009. They’ve driven it roundtrip from Corvallis to Burning Man, twice, and taken numerous trips around the Valley, but never a journey like this. In preparation, Dave’s retrofitted the bus. He installed a TV and audio system, as well as a photovoltaic system, with solar panels attached to the roof to supply power. He switched the seating into two adjacent rows and rigged adjustable leg rests that provide sleeping platforms. He built storage racks for the equipment: batteries, photovoltaic systems, sun ovens, Sun King solar lanterns, and Sun Frost refrigerators. He converted the airbrakes so that they can be used to power pneumatic tools.

The bus was recently painted by Portland artist Chris Rice, whose mural, depicting the solar electrical sequence from sun to bulb, is both education and art. The mural is striking and, combined with the speakers mounted on the outside of the bus, was designed to garner attention.

“Music, dancing, celebrating, they’re such a big part of Ghanaian culture,” Carly said. “We want this to be something to celebrate.”

photo by Nathaniel Brodie

The party-bus aspect in no way indicates a lack of gravity with the project. Solarize Ghana isn’t a “give a man a fish, he eats for a day” aid project. They’re not simply dispensing solar panels, but teaching villagers how solar electricity works and how the system can be maintained. VIDA strives to create long-term commitments with initial training and lasting communication.

The Letteros still exchange monthly emails with villagers in Liberia—“a lot of these people have become friends,” Carly said.

VIDA also relies heavily on local non-profits or development agencies: in Ghana they’re collaborating with a Ghanaian non-profit: Disaster Volunteers of Ghana (DIVOG). Indeed, after this trip, the SolBus will be left in the hands of DIVOG, until the next project is secured.

Unfortunately, the Solarize Ghana project has yet to be fully secured. To bridge a $60,000 funding gap, they’re exploring various corporate sponsors—including some with Ghanaian cell phone companies—and have created a Razoo fund. Still, Dave and Carly are feeling confident that they’ll be ready to set forth by mid-May. Ghana awaits!

To learn more about the project, visit http://www.thevida.org/projects/solarize-ghana/solarize-ghana-home.

by Nathaniel Brodie

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