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Solar project fueled by higher power

Solar panels at PhebeFor Mary Jo Mettler, a trip to West Africa turned into an unexpected calling to help Phebe Hospital in Liberia get solar power.

Founded by the Lutheran church in 1921, in partnership with the Methodist and Episcopalian churches, Phebe Hospital is 112 miles from Monrovia and serves approximately 450,000 patients a year.

“This is a God thing,” Mettler said. The initiative, called “PV for Phebe” (PV stands for “photovoltaic,” the process by which light is turned into electricity), aims to raise $624,000 to provide solar energy to the hospital. Solar energy would save Phebe about $50,000 a year on the diesel fuel it uses to run five generators.

The project recently won a $100,000 National Geographic Great Energy Challenge Grant on the condition it be complete by September 2017.

“To make that happen, we still have a substantial amount of money to raise by December 31, 2016,” said Mettler, a former board member on the Northeastern Minnesota Synodical Women’s Organization and current Women of the ELCA participant at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Pine City, Minn.

Working in partnership with Minnesota-based non-profit RREAL, a non-profit that specializes in providing solar power to people of all income levels, the Northeastern Minnesota Synodical Women’s Organization-backed PV for Phebe project is hoping to bring in about $380,000 over the $145,364,79 already raised, she said.

How it began

Mettler’s mission to see that Phebe Hospital secures solar energy began during a 2012 Women of the ELCA Women Building Global Community 25th anniversary trip to Liberia.

“My friend Mary Kay Sloan always wanted to go to Africa, and she convinced me to go along,” Mettler said. “It wasn’t even on my bucket list.”

When the 25th anniversary group visited Phebe Hospital, Mettler and Sloan witnessed the hospital’s sketchy electricity. When the two asked Jefferson Sibley, Phebe’s medical director and chief surgeon, about his biggest challenge, “electricity” was his reply. Often power fails during surgery, he said.

Mettler said running a hospital with energy provided by generators is an environmental nightmare and is “dirty and unreliable.”

Mettler and Sloan decided to approach RREAL’s project manager B.J. Allen and founder/director Jason Edens for help. “Both Mary Kay and I are social justice and environmental freaks, so we knew about RREAL back in Pine City, Minn,” said Mettler.  “We said you might think we’re crazy old ladies and that this idea is nuts, but there is a hospital in Liberia that spends $400,000 a year on diesel fuel to run generators, and they’ve got no paying patients.”

Apparently RREAL did not think it was “crazy” because the organization began designing a solar solution for Phebe and writing grants to help fund the project.

At Women of the ELCA’s Ninth Triennial Convention in 2014, voting members supported Northeastern Minnesota Synodical Women’s Organization efforts to work with RREAL project and the National Lutheran Church Women Fellowship of Liberia to develop a proposal for providing solar power to the Phebe hospital in Liberia. The PV for Phebe initiative is part of RREAL’s Skip the Grid division, which restores electrical service without having to reconstruct an expensive electrical grid, which was destroyed during Liberia’s 15-year civil war.

At the Tenth Triennial Convention and Gathering in Minneapolis in 2017, a portion of the worship offerings will go to PV for Phebe.

Online donations for the project can be at Skip the Grid. Other donations should be sent to NE MN Synod of ELCA, 1105 E Superior St., Duluth, MN 55802. Donors should put Phebe on the memo line.

Photo provided by RREAL