Hillsboro nonprofit brings solar panels to Haiti for Christmas
Kevin Keene says he and his neighbors in Hillsboro get anxious when their power goes out for an hour.
"Imagine living your entire life without even basic lighting," Keene added.
Last year, Keene and several colleagues founded Brighten Haiti, a Hillsboro-based nonprofit that's working to boost access to electricity using solar panels in Haiti, where nearly half the population lives without electricity, according to the World Bank.
Just in time for Christmas this year, Brighten Haiti provided solar panels to 50 families in Durissy, Haiti, located 50 miles west of the capital of Port-au-Prince.
"Next year, we plan to get all 1,600 families in this rural village solar power," Keene said.
The nonprofit has a 10-year goal of providing solar power to 100,000 families while helping economic development by training Haitians to start their own solar panel manufacturing businesses.
"I think we have a real shot at making some big changes and really changing lives," Keene said.
Keene, who currently works for a Minnesota-based solar panel manufacturer, used to work at Hillsboro's now-defunct solar panel factory, SolarWorld.
He said he and his colleagues had the idea to start Brighten Haiti after traveling to Haiti with a Portland-based nonprofit called Twende Solar, which was providing solar panels to a school that previously didn't have electricity.
Installing solar panels at the school, where there are about 500 students, was a big step, Keene said.
Most people in Durissy are subsistence farmers, Keene said. He recalled community members talking about how education is the pathway to better lives for youth in Durissy.
The community was focused on education, but it still lacked access to books and other materials, Keene said. The library was filled with a decades-old encyclopedia set, he said.
Keene then started working to bring tablets with access to books and other educational materials to students in Durissy, which led to him starting Brighten Haiti.
The kits Brighten Haiti recently provided to families in Durissy each cost about $150 and included a 100-watt solar panel, a battery, three LED lights and a phone charger.
"The biggest need is lighting," Keene said. "If we can provide lighting and cellphone charging, it can really make a big difference."
Brighten Haiti acquires solar panels in much the same way a thrift store acquires clothing and linens. As utility companies and some commercial solar projects upgrade to new, more-efficient panels, they decommission existing solar panels, which Brighten Haiti is happy to take off their hands, Keene said.
Solar panel technology is improving rapidly, which creates an opportunity to reuse older solar panels after companies install new ones, he noted.
Aside from Brighten Haiti's ambitious goal to equip every household in Durissy with a solar panel kit within one year, the nonprofit hopes to help Haitians start their own solar panel manufacturing companies by bringing in economic development training.
Keene said Brighten Haiti plans to start training teachers at the Durissy school to build solar panels.
The economic development training — planning for which is in its early stages, because it's not Brighten Haiti members' area of expertise, Keene said — could broaden to help other aspects of life in Durissy.
Keene said he hopes to help farmers start a co-op so they can bring some of their products to market in larger towns nearby.
The first thing people would need to bring farm products to sell elsewhere is a truck, Keene said, adding that very few people in Durissy own vehicles.
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