Chilly? There’s an app for that

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[mk_dropcaps style=”simple-style”]E[/mk_dropcaps]NERGY DOESN’T OFTEN ARISE in conversations about health, but the relationship is closer than it might first appear. After all, energy is a basic element of secure shelter, one of the foundations in promoting good health. The economic activity generated by energy industries, meanwhile, is a key source of revenue for governments charged with maintaining public health systems. Energy production — nuclear in particular — even supplies materials for medicine, notably the radioactive isotopes used in imaging and some cancer treatments.

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”2/3″][mk_image src=”” image_width=”800″ image_height=”350″ crop=”false” lightbox=”false” frame_style=”simple” target=”_self” caption_location=”outside-image” align=”left” margin_bottom=”10″ title=”Bruce Gao and Matthew Privman created SimplySolar, a smartphone app that helps align solar panels for maximum effectiveness.” desc=” THE GLOBE AND MAIL; DAVID CLOUTIER;”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/1″][vc_column_text disable_pattern=”true” align=”left” margin_bottom=”0″]Sometimes, though, innovative ideas about the relationship between energy and health can emerge at the grassroots level. Take 20-year-old Bruce Gao, for example.

An undergraduate student at the University of Calgary, Gao has spent breaks volunteering at an orphanage in Rongshui, Guangxi, China, a region where lashing monsoon rains often bring sub-zero nighttime temperatures to villages nestled along the mountainous terrain.

For many in the region, heat is generated by thermal solar panels. Or at least it should be. At the orphanage where Gao worked, it wasn’t enough. Gao heard tales that on many nights children were found wrapped around one another in an effort to stay warm. After some research, Gao discovered the solar panels they relied on for warmth were angled the wrong way, thus failing to deliver on their intended purpose. Gao’s solution? “I made a computer program that would calculate the best angle for the solar panel at any time of year,” he says.

Gao completed the program back home in Canada as part of a Grade 12 computer science program, then had the results implemented at the orphanage. The effects were immediately noticeable. “Warm water came out of the faucets, and the dormitories were much warmer.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/1″][vc_column_text disable_pattern=”true” align=”left” margin_bottom=”0″]But if the efficient operation of solar panels was a problem in Rongshui, it was likely a problem in other places, Gao figured. This inspired him and fellow student Matthew Privman to develop SimplySolar, an application that helps align solar panels for maximum effectiveness using GPS co-ordinates and the date. SimplySolar, which can increase panel efficiency by up to 40 per cent, is made all the more useful because it is designed for smartphones, which are more readily available in remote areas than computers. Additionally, it gives people in low-tech communities the opportunity to engage with energy technology and improve their overall energy literacy.

Although Gao has made a splash in energy-related technology, he hopes to build his career in medicine and is currently studying neuroscience on a Schulich Leadership Scholarship. From his point of view, though, the two fields are not mutually exclusive. Gao says that fossil fuel energy is impractical in many parts of the developing world due to extraction and transportation costs. Things westerners take for granted, like the energy required to boil water to eliminate pathogens, or the energy required to run rural medical clinics, is still a challenge for many communities. “Sustainable energy has a really good niche in this area,” he says.

On that front, he’s dreaming big about the future. “I really want to make osmotic energy possible,” Gao says, referring to the energy released when seawater and river water collide in estuaries and other similar water bodies. “It might be a pipe dream,” he adds, laughing. But let there be no doubt: Gao’s commitment to energy and how it can improve human health and living conditions is the real thing[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/1″][mk_padding_divider size=”40″][mk_button dimension=”three” size=”large” outline_skin=”dark” outline_active_color=”#fff” outline_hover_color=”#333333″ bg_color=”#13bdd2″ text_color=”light” url=”/resources/energy-exchange-magazine/issue-4/” target=”_self” align=”left” fullwidth=”true” margin_top=”0″ margin_bottom=”15″ animation=”scale-up”]READ MORE STORIES FROM THE SUMMER 2015 ISSUE OF ENERGY EXCHANGE MAGAZINE[/mk_button][mk_padding_divider size=”40″][vc_column_text disable_pattern=”true” align=”left” margin_bottom=”0″]by Dawn Calleja and Niki Wilson[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]