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Solar Powered Laptops

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 Child with laptop  

Enersol’s EduSol program provides solar-powered laptops for educational purposes to rural schools in Latin America and the Caribbean. As a small NGO, Enersol’s funding comes primarily through smaller donations from private foundations. The NGO works hard to achieve the maximum benefit from the available financial resources.

Enersol selected laptops as a standard component of their solar-powered computer kits after field experimentation with both laptops and desktops. The laptops’ lower power consumption and relative ease of shipping and transport were determining factors in the decision (Monday Developments, 2001).

The hot, humid and often dusty conditions of many rural schools pose challenges to keep the systems operational. Surprisingly, the computer hardware itself has not been problematic. To ease wear and tear on the notebooks and improve ergonomics, EduSol supplies inexpensive keyboards and external mice. The peripherals pose greater problems. In particular, the external CD drives are susceptible to breakdown because they have a greater proportion of moving parts.

The program has successfully shown how much can be accomplished with very basic computing hardware. In 2004, EduSol schools continue to make good use of donated laptops with 100 MHz CPUs, 24-40 MB of memory, and 0.8GB of storage to teach general keyboarding, file management and Microsoft Office skills. External CD-ROM readers also allow the use of learning games and reference materials. The newest machines include Pentium II processors, 64 MB of memory, and 3-5 GB of storage.

Corporate equipment donations have been easier to work with than individual donations, since the former often provide multiple units of the same make and model. This has allowed the users in different schools to move up the learning curve more quickly by learning from each other’s experiences. Discarded computers have also provided an inventory of spare parts for repairs or increases in capacity.

By relying on laptops, Edusol can provide ample service for a modest investment in energy equipment. A center that opens for seven hours a day, including three hours of lighting at night, and limited printing, consumes approximately 350 Watt-hours daily. This is what an urban family might use watching a few hours of television, but under these circumstances it can provide 28 students per day with 30 minutes on a machine. Increased learning is also possible by having each student alternate between keyboarding and direct observation.

In contrast to some other projects, EduSol has encountered almost no resistance to the use of laptops in the communities it serves. Perhaps this is because, from the project’s inception, Enersol explains the benefits to the community of using energy efficient laptops that can keep PV costs down. This educational process is not limited to interactions with the community leaders, but extends to the school children and the entire community. Enersol reinforces the message by explaining that the community can either have one desktop that three to four students can use, or three to four laptops that eight to 12 students can use. By bringing the message directly to the end users, community members at all levels understand the reasons for choosing the lower power option.

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