In 2009, Chris McRae had a brilliant idea – an idea so enlightened that it would ultimately brighten the lives of thousands of Haitians living in relative darkness (and without clean water).
The Fort Smith resident was volunteering as an instructor for Living Waters for the World, a Presbyterian Church non-profit that builds gasoline-powered water filtration systems in third-world countries, when the flash of genius struck him. “I realized the ability to operate, for even a few hours a day, on solar-powered electricity would save money on fuel and protect against electricity shortages,” McRae said.
His epiphany spawned a new Presbyterian outfit, Solar Under the Sun (SUTS), designed to augment the Living Waters program by powering their filtration systems with sun instead of gas.
During the pilot project, SUTS successfully retrofitted a Living Waters system in Haiti, where work amplified in the aftermath of the 2009 earthquake. “Everywhere we go, there is huge demand in neighboring parishes and communities,” McRae said. “They desperately need this. We’ve got to get to all of them as soon as we can.”
Through 2010, SUTS had installed a total of 27 solar-powered water systems in Haiti – each producing enough potable water to accommodate up to 1,200 people. In 2011, he estimates another 11 will be installed. (His isn’t the only non-profit helping Haiti get clean water, but it’s the largest providing an eco-solution to the country’s major water problem.)
SUTS has achieved so much already, due in part to McRae’s Solar School – held three times a year at the Ferncliff Camp & Conference Center in Little Rock. He and solar power professionals spend three days training teams and individuals from churches and other organizations around the country. Two courses are taught concurrently, covering specific aspects of solar development and installation, including how to negotiate covenants, evaluate sites for solar projects, assemble off-grid solar energy systems and practice safety and maintenance. Trainees return home to form mission teams, fundraise and travel to one of the 30-plus Haitian cities anxiously awaiting a new system. McRae hopes to mobilize volunteers to Honduras and the Ukraine soon, in response to pleas from locals in need there.
To continue this work, the former independent contractor writes grants, speaks on behalf of his organization in hopes of raising funds and garnering trainees for upcoming classes, and delegates matching funds to groups heading out on SUTS missions. “We envision going in and installing solar-powered systems around the world.”
And although SUTS’ primary focus remains on eco-friendly water filtration systems, it also equips clinics and schools with electricity. “This technology is transformational in third-world countries,” McRae said. “Light means the difference in a child being able to study and learn, and having the ability to recharge a cell phone or laptop will bring many of these people into the 21 century.”