This post was originally written by George Greene III, Chief Executive Officer of Water Missions International, and posted in March 2013 on SolarWorld’s blog here.
Work has begun on one of the largest solar arrays in South Carolina — to power Water Mission International’s world headquarters in Charleston. It’s exciting news that, when I think about it, translates into thousands of lives that are going to be saved.
But first I should introduce myself. I am George Greene, I am a chemical engineer and I serve as chief executive officer of Water Missions International, an organization which we describe as a Christian engineering ministry. For over 20 years, my wife and I owned and operated an environmental laboratory and consulting company. In 2000, we sold that company and founded Water Missions to focus our lives on responding to a fundamental human need that we had learned almost 20 percent of the world’s population lacks: safe drinking water. We think of the need as both enormous and urgent – enormous in that almost a billion people don’t have access to safe water and urgent because thousands of people die every day from water-borne diseases.
When we started this work 13 years ago, three people worked in the organization, and we struggled to find funding to do a few projects a year, primarily in Central America. Today, a global staff of over 150 engineers, technicians and support staff working in Charleston and nine country programs around the world have completed almost 1,000 community water projects that we estimate have the capacity to provide safe water to 2 million people.
This week will long be remembered by all of us here at Water Missions for the long-awaited installation of a 100-kilowatt solar array to power our new headquarters. The solar array will be the second largest in South Carolina, and we think it will be among the largest for a U.S. nonprofit agency.
SolarWorld got the project going by donating 100 kilowatts of solar panels and all of the associated engineering for an installation. SMA America came alongside the project and donated the inverters. Other companies made the project a reality by donating everything from the pilings to the framing to the wiring. Then West Virginia’s Mountain View Solar donated the manpower to oversee the installation.
To complete the installation in five days, Mountain View told us we would need to line up 20-30 volunteers each day – electricians, fork lift drivers as well as general laborers. Water Missions is blessed to have a large number of very dedicated volunteers, but we thought it was going to be a challenge to line up 20-30 a day for a whole week. So imagine what went through our minds when more people than we expected started responding to our call for help. Yesterday, the first day of installation, 80 volunteers showed up! Today, over 100 were expected. And we’re expecting this kind of response to continue throughout the week!
So this place is humming with energy and excitement. Just last week, we finally moved into our new offices – in a renovated 43,000-square-foot warehouse built by the Navy in 1942. When we leased the building from the state in August, the building had been empty for years. Not a single window remained, and most of the doors were either broken or missing. Several roof trusses were badly damaged, and the roof leaked like a sieve. There was no running water or sewer service, the electric wiring was in terrible condition and the fire sprinkler system was not operational. But we felt the building was an answer to prayer, and thanks to a great lease with the state that allows us to invest in the building, restoration began immediately.
This building we now call home will be a wonderful facility to house the engineers and support staff who are responsible for designing and overseeing the implementation of comprehensive community water projects around the world. Our manufacturing operation to assemble water-filtration systems occupies almost 15,000 square feet of the building. Though untested at this point, we think we now have the capacity to produce five to 10 water treatment systems a day – enough to enable us to respond immediately to major disasters pretty much anywhere in the world. For many systems, we will use solar panels from SolarWorld to power pumps to drive water through the systems and provide clean, safe drinking water.
So, aside from being a great thing to do from an environmental perspective, how does the new installation in Charleston affect Water Missions and the people we serve? Our electric bill is around $1,000 a month. With this new system, this monthly cost goes away. As a result, we will have $1,000 each month to invest in safe water projects that we couldn’t invest in before. It costs us about $10 to provide a person lifetime access to safe water. Therefore, our solar system translates into 100 people every month whose lives will be changed because they will gain access to life-saving safe water.