Technology and missions

Reliable access to energy is one of those things we can take for granted. We flip a switch and bring light to a darkened room. Outlets are plentiful where we charge our phones or power a tool. Refrigerators keep our food fresh and water heaters make our showers comfortable. In some places where The United Methodist Church is in mission, however, that is not the case. Hospitals rely on cellphone flashlights. Students struggle to study at night. Vaccines cannot be stored without refrigeration.

So when energy is unreliable or unavailable, our missionaries and disaster relief teams turn to innovative technologies to get the job done.

The Rev. Jenny Phillips, Senior Technical Advisor for Environmental Sustainability at United Methodist Global Ministries, introduces us to some of those cool gadgets and shares about the importance of caring for creation as we care for others.

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The Rev. Jenny Phillips, UM Global Ministries

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This episode posted on October 16, 2020.

Transcript

Prologue

Joe Iovino, host: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.

Today, I’m talking with the Rev. Jenny Phillips who is serving at United Methodist Global Ministries as the Senior Technical Advisor for Environmental Sustainability. We talk about some of the cool technology that Global Ministries uses to power devices where electricity is either non-existent or unreliable. It’s amazing what our missionaries do!

She also shares with us the importance of green energy and Creation Care.

Conversation

Joe: Jenny Phillips, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape.

Jenny: Thank you. I’m glad to be here with you, Joe.

Joe: In your role with the United Methodist Global Ministries, you get to see and help facilitate the use of some innovative technological techniques that are used in mission work. Can you tell me about some of those?

Jenny: Yeah. Absolutely. At Global Ministries I’m the Senior Technical Advisor for Environmental Sustainability. It’s a role that has evolved in the time I’ve been there for the last 3 years now. And I’m doing a lot of work on just figuring out how we can use technology to make our nation and ministries more sustainable.

So a lot of the work we’re doing is exploring and experimenting and pilot projects, primarily with solar. So for example, we’ve done several projects now where we’ve distributed small solar lanterns. We distributed 20,000 in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. We’re using them with school girls in Sudan and South Sudan because if you’re in a situation where you don’t have energy in your home, then you can’t study at night. And it’s not safe for young girls to be traveling back and forth between their homes and school if they want to do more studying. Often they have chores they have to do during the day and then they need to study at night. And so lanterns make it possible for girls to study and do their exams in the context we’re working in in Sudan and South Sudan.

An added bonus that I hear a lot with lantern projects, that is something that I don’t think about much where I live in the United States. But people really like getting lanterns if they don’t have energy in their home because people in contexts where there are snakes, often if they step out of bed in the middle of the night, they encounter a snake.

So there are things like that we don’t even think about if we’re living in a context where all we have to do is flip on a light switch to be able to see and know what is around us to feel safe. So that was really an eye opening thing for me.

We’ve also done solar lanterns for healthcare facilities, small clinics without energy access. We have clinics where there isn’t grid electricity where generators are sometimes used when fuel is available. But if it’s not doctors are doing surgeries with kerosene lamps or the cell phone lights. I mean, it’s  really challenging in a lot of parts of the world. And so even just a small solar…actually I have one here. A solar lantern like this can be a life-saving light in a medical context. And it goes brighter and it blinks.

This one is cool because it’s inflatable.

Joe: Oh, okay.

Jenny: To me it looks like my kids’ pool toys. So I can deflate it which makes it super easy to ship. You know, they pack flat. There’s this little solar panel right here. There’s a button that I can see… You probably can’t see…

Joe: I can see it.

Jenny: A little button so you can see how much power is left. Looks like I’ve got two-thirds of the battery charge. And when I’m out of power I just take this outside and light it up. It’s got a little handle here I can hook it up a bag or just be out and about, hang it on something. So they’re really great. We also have.. I have another one here. I should have gotten these ready for you, Joe.

Joe: This is fun. This is good.

Jenny: So this one….This is another one. This has a cell phone charger, a USB charger pot. So you can charge your phone. So think about this like for a disaster response teams. If you’re out in a place where the grid is down here is a way you can charge your cell phone.

Now we’re also thinking about other solutions for situations like disaster response, because those are situations where the power is often out temporarily. So we’re trying to imagine what we could do to better equip conferences with energy for those short-term needs.

Right now we use a lot of generators, diesel-powered generators. They’re good in that when you have fuel they’re really reliable. Two challenges, though. One is that you can’t always get fuel in a place that has experienced disaster. It can be very hard to get fuel to those places and the fuel supplies are often low for generators because everybody suddenly wants diesel fuel for generators. The other is that diesel generators emits fossil fuels. And when we’re burning fossil fuels we’re admitting carbon into the atmosphere, and that’s contributing to climate change. Climate change contributes to extreme weather events which exacerbates normal disasters that we already experience.

So we’re trying to think about how do we do disaster response in ways that don’t enhance conditions for future disasters and create more suffering. We know we need to do what we need to do in the short term to help the people who are in need. But we want to do it in a way that ensures help for the community for the long term, not just for that immediate moment.

So, let me get to the technology part, we’re trying to look at things like containerized solar where you get a shipping container and it comes packed with solar panels, batteries, charge controllers, outlets and you can put it on a trailer…if you can get a trailer, you know, pulled by a pickup truck into a site, which we… Those are the types of places where we end up anyway with our generators or whatever. Then you can put it in place, set up the solar panels, hook it up and then you’ve got a little mini power station wherever you need it, whether it’s outside a church that’s serving as a shelter, whether you’ve got a smaller unit that functions both as a solar trailer and a tool trailer. A lot of our conferences have tool trailers where they keep all their tools. And they just move ‘em around for disasters. Heating water for showers, a lot of conferences have shower trailers for their volunteers.

Joe: I hadn’t thought of that.

Jenny: Any time we’re trying to think about where we need power, we’re trying to think about, is solar a possibility?

Now sometimes…. The challenge with solar is that if you have a long string of rainy days your battery might go down to a level where you don’t have enough power. It’s also possible to create a tool trailer or any other kind of trailer where you have a hybrid generator that takes all the solar you have and all the power from the battery, and then if you need a top up you can turn on the diesel. But it’s just so much less polluting and so much cheaper to not be having to do diesel all the time.

So there’s something else happening on my back porch right now as we speak.

We are working on vaccine refrigeration. We have 300 clinics all around the world, mostly in developing countries with limited energy access. You may already know this. Vaccines have to be kept at cold temperatures. We’ve been hearing about this more with COVID, right? We’re starting to hear new stories about how is this vaccine…when something comes up, how will we distribute it? It’s a special challenge in places that don’t have energy access. How do you keep vaccines cold?

So there are solar refrigerators that have this great technology. Solar direct drive it’s called. And what they do is the solar panels create electricity that turns on a compressor in the refrigerator, and then the refrigerator interior is filled with liquid that stays very, very cold and is able to maintain a stable temperature. Now it can do this without any batteries for a couple of days. It can stay cold. So if you have one rainy day, no problem. But if are in a place where you have rainy seasons it’s a bigger challenge. Our Global Health team used to use these solar refrigerators with lead acid batteries, which is a typical type of battery that’s used in low income countries in solar applications. And it’s the kind of battery that’s in your car. Those are lead acid batteries.

But the problem is they don’t…they die faster… Like, not die, not in the number of hours, but in like their life, you know, 2-3 years. That’s the life span they were experiencing. So they’d ship out these huge expensive refrigerators, but they just wouldn’t work after a few years. It wasn’t going well. So we stopped doing solar refrigeration.

Now we’re working with a company called SunDanzer which is actually the company that invented the solar direct drive technology. The head of the company is a guy who worked on solar refrigeration for NASA. And then it was established as working well for the astronauts, they started this company to bring it down to earth for the rest of us.

His new model of refrigerator uses lithium ion batteries, which are batteries that last longer, both in terms of how long they can charge for the amount of space they take up, and then also the number of years; we can expect it work for 8 years or more. And we can replace them. They’re in a small box. Each…. There are 2 batteries. They’re about this big each, tiny box. Huge chest refrigerator.

So this is all on my back porch right now because we said, well, this is a new technology. I mean, the company has tested it and it’s in the middle of the testing process that these refrigerators go through with the World Health Organization. And they anticipate it will pass. But our Global Health team said we just want to see this in action before we deploy them.

So we got one, and because the office is closed due to the pandemic, it’s in my house. And today is the first day of testing. So I set up the solar panels in the back yard. We set up the fridge and the batteries. When the guy delivered the fridge my spouse said, Oh, we can’t put it there because there’s no outlet. Because this is how we think. Even though we knew it was solar powered,

So now here’s what we’re doing. We’ve got thermometers placed throughout the refrigerator. Because it’s a chest fridge, when you open it it’s gonna be warmer at the top because cold drops down. We need to know does it still stay cold enough, does it stay within the range of 2 to 8 degrees Celsius. That’s what we need, to stay cold even when it opened and closed.

So we’re monitoring that for a few days. Then we’re going to start putting water bottles into it. Pulling bottles in and out, putting warm water in, taking cold water out, leaving the door open, doing things that’s replicate the conditions of an actual clinic when people are opening and closing all day long.

If the fridge can stay in the temperature range it needs to be in, we’ve got a great opportunity here to save a lot of lives basically. And they’re only two thousand dollars apiece, which is remarkable. It’s a very accessible technology.

Joe: When you first me about this I was picturing like a dorm size refrigerator. The little one, but you’re talking about a full-size chest refrigerator right.

Jenny: Yeah, it looks similar to a full-size chest refrigerator. The interior space is not as big because there’s all of this insulation and then this layer of cooling liquid to maintain the temperature. So the capacity is like 80 liters, if that means anything to you.

Joe: That’s an amazing technology and I guess it’s a fun experiment for you to get to see this first hand.

Jenny: It’s great. I mean, we’re like doing citizen science here. I’ve got two children. And so I’m having them help me. Let’s look at the thermometers, record the temperatures. So, yeah. It’s fun and it’s fun for me to show them, here’s what the church is doing in mission. Here’s how we’re on the leading edge of what’s possible to help people. And…

Joe: Let’s talk a little bit about your background because you’re not a scientist, right?

Jenny: I’m not a scientist. I’m a pastor. I’m an elder from the Pacific-Northwest Conference.

My call to ministry was really grounded in caring for God’s creation. And so I pursued elder’s orders and was explicit about the thought that I would be pursuing extension ministry. I worked on a conference staff. I’ve worked in various capacities—writing, developing curriculum, focusing on theological resources.

I also coordinated Fossil-Free UMC, which was the campaign to urge the United Methodist Church to divest from fossil fuels. And with living in Seattle when this opportunity with Global Ministries came up and as I spoke with the team there it just felt like a fit. And so it’s been a transition for me to learn about solar technology, but I’ve been doing course work to get certified to become a solar design and installation technician so that I really have the capacity… For example, when we’re doing grants with partners, to assess where they get bids from different vendors, and we look at their system, you know, I can say, Well here’s what this person’s proposing. Here’s what this person’s proposing. Let’s think about how this fits with your needs and go from there.

Joe: Let’s talk a little bit about that …back with that pastoral background because you’re talking about some greener technologies. So there’s a part of this that’s about caring for the environment, caring for creation and regarding climate change, which is often seen as this political issue. But you’re seeing it and framing it as a spiritual issue. Right?

Jenny: Well it’s absolutely a spiritual issue. And it’s very much a United Methodist issue.

I just did a presentation for some our staff yesterday where I showed them Resolution 1033 from our Book of Resolutions where our General Conference, our denomination has said that we’re confronted with this crisis of the deterioration of God’s creation and we’re committing ourselves to a new way of being that integrates environmental, economic and social justice. And that’s specific to our agency.

We say in the Book of Resolutions that the church will explore and implement tangible ways to incorporate creation care into the mission, ministries, training programs, operations and administration of Global Ministries. The reason our General Conference said that is because the church sees this as a spiritual issue.

We see it throughout our Social Principles, the statements from the Council of Bishops, and then of course in Scripture in which God creates creation, calls it good, and then humans hear…. God says to the humans, you can have anything you want, but there is a boundary for how much you can consume in God’s creation. Don’t eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

We have been struggling with that boundary since the beginning of our human story. And our tension with that boundary has broken our relationship with God, the land and one another. So this work is also about healing that brokenness and bringing reconciliation to that relationship.

Joe: One of the things you and I talked about… Often, for those of you who are listening, these podcasts start because I have an interesting conversation with somebody and then I want to share it so we set up a time to record. But you and I had a conversation a couple of weeks ago about the use of diesel generators. And one of the things I had never thought of is…you said imagine using that in an operating room. Right? So all of the emissions that are coming out in the operating room and now it affects the sterilization process and all of those things.

What are some of the other health hazards, kind of right here, right now when we start to use those kinds of means of getting energy in the places where we need it?

Jenny: Yeah, absolutely. I may not have been clear in our previous conversation. We wouldn’t have the generator emitting fumes in the operating room. Like the fumes are going outside. But you know, like especially in places where it’s very hot but there’s no air conditioning. The doors are gonna be open. You’re gonna smell that generator.

I’ve heard a lot of talk from our missionaries about really disliking their generators because they can smell the fumes in the house. So I think anytime you’re burning fuel you smell and you breathe that air. And it’s not safe and it’s not healthy.

Joe: Tell me why most of the things you’ve been talking about are solar. What are some of the reasons why we choose solar over maybe those other choices that might be available?

Jenny: Well, I mean, emissions reduction is huge, like I said. Because these emissions contribute to the changes in the atmosphere, the changes in the climate that are exacerbated in extreme weather.

Joe: And the people you are helping are often the people who are most victimized by those changes in the climate. Correct?

Jenny: Absolutely. I mean, we’re usually showing up in places within vulnerable communities anyway. That’s where they need the help. And so we want our response to not only be short term but also long term. Whatever we’re doing in the moment is thinking not just about what’s happening in that moment, but contributing to the larger health and the long term health of the community in which we’re serving.

One of the reasons we use solar is it’s more pleasant to be around. It simply contributes to humans’ physical and mental health. It doesn’t emit anything smelly. It doesn’t make you cough when you’re around it. It’s silent, whereas generators are very noisy and unpleasant to listen to. It’s absolutely lovely.

I know that sounds very cheesy. But like, in the work I’ve been doing where I’m getting to test products and try things out, it’s so pleasant. And it feels like this miracle every time, every time I try out a new… Like, I have these solar home system kits where it’s a couple of small solar panels and some lamps and a unit that has the battery, the radio and USB charger. And you just set it all up and the lights work and it’s quiet and you don’t need to have a cord going a million miles to some outlet somewhere. It’s just really good.

And then the other thing is it helps communities be more resilient because you’re not reliant… I mean, when we talk about energy access, there are about 800 million people in the world, currently without reliable energy access where they can do what we do and turn on the light. About 5 million of them are in sub-Saharan Africa. And energy access isn’t just…it’s not just whether or not you can turn on the light. It’s measured in the duration and availability. Some people have energy access for a couple of hours. They know the time of day when the grid’s gonna be on in their community, and they do all their work during that time. Reliability, quality, affordability, like, if you’re living in a place where the currency fluctuates all the time, then one day you might be able to afford energy. The next day you might not be able to afford it. Convenience and health and safety.

So when we’re looking at how we implement solar, we’re looking both at how we can mitigate some of the challenges that people experience with their current energy situation by providing reliability and affordability, and also helping to increase their access, because often we’re working in a place where they do have a couple of hours of energy a day. But you know in a hospital setting that’s not enough. In a school that’s not enough. And so how…or in a disaster response situation that’s not enough.

So how do we increase the amount, the duration, the capacity, and help people be able to count on the electricity they have so they can make plans, so they can start a business and know that they can follow through on their commitments. Things like that. Just knowing what you can expect is gonna increase the resilience of your community because you can plan more than a day ahead for what you’re gonna do and how you’re gonna do your work.

Joe: You’re talking…it’s like these secondary benefits, maybe, or things they wouldn’t think of that are benefits, like being able to start a business,  or… You really in passing mentioned a radio and just be able to have that communications connection, to be able to tell people if there’s a health hazard or whatever else, just to get that information out. There are a lot of amazing things that can happen when people have power and reliable power to get to do the things that they need to do.

Jenny: You know, most of the products we work with have cell phone chargers. And in a lot of developing countries they just have payment systems through their phones. It means they can participate in the economy. If they can keep their phone charged they can participate in the economy in a deeper way than they can if they can’t keep the phone charged.

Joe: That’s remarkable.

Jenny: Yeah.

Joe: That’s really remarkable. And this just again, some of the things we might not think about when we just think about power as really important.

The question that I ask every guest on Get Your Spirit in Shape is: how do you keep your spirit in shape in the midst of all that you do?

Jenny: I really keep my spirit in shape by spending time outside, and not just walking around, but like, I think it’s really important to touch nature, to be aware that the world around us is alive, that we are not apart from it, that we are embedded within a part of this community of God’s creation.

I think it’s really important to have a sense of solidarity with the natural world around us. That means touching. That means being deeply aware of your senses—smelling. Grounding yourself in places and knowing where you are and then thanking God for that. And being aware of God’s presence in those places.

Joe: How do you that? When you go out into nature how do you do it differently than I would?

Jenny: If I go for a walk I might go to a walking trail nearby. And I just walk normally and thinking about the things I think about. But then I also stop and breathe, and I will touch trees. There is something really powerful about touching trees, touching other living things.

I don’t usually go walking far from my home barefoot. But I like to be barefoot outside and feel the earth under my feet, sit and touch the ground, touch the earth, and just again…. it’s probably not that different from you. It’s more about like my awareness and maybe my pace—to not just be going, going, going, but stopping and taking in whatever is in your midst. And I’ve stopped in places where you haven’t been before, places you’re exploring, but also the place in which you’re grounded, whatever is outside the window behind you.

Go out there. Like, look at it, touch it, smell it and give thanks for it.

Joe: I think when we were feeling very much confined and some of those things are being loosened now, but with the COVID-19 restrictions that we were, lots of people were enjoying just going outside in their backyard or going for the walk down the trail. And it’s gonna be really easy to get back into a routine where that doesn’t happen anymore. And I hear you encouraging us to continue that and to continue to seek God among the natural order.

Jenny: Absolutely. And you don’t have to have a walking trail near your home to be able to do this. I lived in New York City for 9 years and lived in a high rise apartment building. So… And people would say to me, how are you this environmentalist when you live in a big. Well, God is present in cities. Nature is present in cities. And it takes a different type of awareness. But there’s not some ideal situation where you need to go create something you don’t have, to engage God’s creation.

It all counts—the sidewalk trees, the wind that you feel when you go outside, the rain, the clouds. All of it is part of God’s creation, and you can meet God in any type of place.

Joe: Wonderful. Jenny, thank you so much for taking your time today to be with us and have this conversation.

Jenny: Can I say one more thing? I hope this is all right. I just want to say if this is a ministry that interests you, working on creation care and renewable energy, you can actually support it through the United Methodist, the Global Ministries’ Advance. The Advance is #3022499. And it’s Creation Care and Renewable Energy. And we could use your support to keep growing this work.

Epilogue

Joe: That was the Rev. Jenny Phillips who supports United Methodist missionaries across the globe as the Senior Technical Advisor for Environmental Sustainability at Global Ministries. To learn more about Jenny, the work she’s doing and to see some pictures of the cool tech we talked about, go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for the notes page of this episode. There’s also a link there where you can support her work with a donation.

Thanks for listening. I’ll be back soon with another conversation that will help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.