Intelligent Energy

Let there be light! (and radio-tracking collars)

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Stephen Gold mixes modern tech with good old-fashioned volunteerism. He spends his Earth days sending solar care packages to far-flung scientists studying some of the world's most endangered species. Save the energy. Save the wild.

The sun does much for life on Earth.

Thanks to contractor Stephen Gold, wildlife scientists are having it do more. Gold has been constructing solar energy systems and shipping them to research stations off the grid—way off. Starting out of his San Francisco garage in 2003, this volunteer’s work now harnesses sunbeams touching down in Africa, the Andes and the Himalayas. Gold explained to me yesterday how some creature comforts in the field can benefit creatures in the wild.

What made you think to bring solar power to remote researchers?

I based the idea on what Rebecca Klein, who works with cheetahs in Botswana, said at a Wildlife Conservation Network expo. At these talks, conservationists often say what they need—a vehicle, a tracking device, money for GPS collars. Rebecca said she needed energy. Many field researchers rely on solar already, but their set-ups are one module with a battery. They have to charge it sometimes with a vehicle. The kind of solar I was looking at would provide for all their needs and then some, so their research could grow.

How did you get started?

I emailed WCN's Charles Knowles. I called people I knew in the solar field, drafted a letter, sent it around, and finally someone at BP Solar offered a donation. Once I got the first paneled modules, I went to other companies. You need inverters to convert electricity into something useable. Outback Power Systems donated all the inverters—about $50,000 worth. You also have to change the voltage because they differ elsewhere in the world. Other donors were MK Batteries and Beronio Lumber. This local supplier donated $5,000 worth of plywood because we had to build boxes to put all this stuff in.

It made me feel really good about the world, that there’s a lot of generous people out there, from large companies to small companies. When they’re presented with what they believe is going to happen, they’re willing to help.

Do you set up the panels on location?

I ship them with an instruction manual that a friend of mine at Solar Depot compiled. The conservationists install their own systems locally. That’s works out fine—though obviously we’ve had some questions and phone conservations back and forth. I’ve gone to inspect all the systems that have been shipped out so far. The first went out to Claudio Sillero with the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme. He got his up before anyone. It was pretty cool. He even built a small house with the shipping boxes.

How has the solar helped enhance wildlife research?

I think eventually they’d have expanded their research anyway, but it’s been a lot easier for them to do so. Now they can have lights on all night instead of just two hours. When suddenly you triple or quadruple how much energy you have, you can start thinking about the next step. Claudio in Ethiopia is a good example. We were at 13,000 feet. You get up in the middle of the night. It’s 10 degrees below zero. You need shelter. You need light. And you need to be comfortable, because the more comfortable you are, the easier it is to do your research.

Iain Douglas-Hamilton is using GPS-tracker collars on his elephants. One of the reasons he’s able to do so is that his whole camp is supplied with my solar. I’m very proud of things like that. Unfortunately, they recently had a tremendous flood (right). One of the only things left standing was the solar. But at least they were able to get their power back on line in about three days.

Last Wednesday I shipped a container out to the Snow Leopard Trust in Mongolia's South Gobi Desert. That was really exciting. I’m helping build up their camp so PhD students and more researchers can come over and live. They couldn’t do this before, and now they can run printers and computers simultaneously. Next month we'll ship really large systems to APW in Tanzania and the Niassa Carnivore Project in Mozambique.

How do you customize the solar systems for each project?

I’ll ask, ‘What are you trying to do? What do you have right now? Laptops? A VSAT? A water pump?’

I determine where they are, how much sun they get daily. Then I do some calculations, like how long they would need electricity for if they didn’t have any sun—if it were raining. Douglas-Hamilton probably uses more electricity than most people. He has a large camp that does many things. Everyone has different research needs but they all have the same kinds of living needs—lights, refrigeration, computers, that kind of stuff.

How has your work evolved?

I've learned how to improve the project. For instance, Laurence Frank—a good guy living with lions in Kenya. A module in one of his camps, through just a defect, went down. Now I know to ship extras.

I’ve also learned a lot about lighting. With off-grid solar systems, every bit of energy you save is important. I not only incorporate solar modules and inverters but also LED lighting so conservationists can be more efficient. When I visited Amboseli, I brought over suitcases of LEDs. They'll last 10 to 15 years. So now I put together more of a package.

What do you see for the project's future?

I see it continuing. I don’t know if it will grow with just me to carry it out, but I do see it improving. I see a battery maintenance program—these solar batteries run out like any battery does. In some respects, I see it as my little way of helping to change the planet—to make it a better place, and to help conserve the animals that we hold so dear.

Do you think other organizations will begin doing what you do?

I hope so. I’m certainly willing to help them. I’d love to share my experience with someone else. This isn’t a proprietary thing for me. I want it to be ubiquitous.

By next Earth Day, recipients of Gold's goodwill may also include: tree kangaroos in Papua New Guinea, cotton-top tamarins in Colombia, Grevy's zebras in Kenya, and possibly, gorillas in Rwanda and Andean mountain cats in Bolivia.

Disclosure note: Stephen Gold has worked with researchers within the conservation organization that employs me.
Images: Stephen Gold WCN Solar Project

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Melissa Mahony

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Melissa Mahony has written for Scientific American Mind, Audubon Magazine, Plenty Magazine and LiveScience. Formerly, she was an editor at Wildlife Conservation magazine. She holds degrees from Boston College and New York University's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure