(Editor’s note: This article was originally published by Power for All. )
Europe and the United States face the challenge of providing tens of thousands of people to access intensive health care services. In Africa and southern Asia, hundreds of thousands of people live each day without adequate access to any healthcare at all.
One barrier to accessing healthcare? A lack of reliable electricity. The current virus is amplifying the urgency for a solution. Bill Gates warned recently that COVID-19 could overwhelm health systems in sub-Saharan Africa and have “very, very dramatic” consequences.
Universal healthcare and universal access to electricity are both global development goals. A World Health Organization (WHO) review found that one in four health facilities in sub-Saharan Africa had no access to electricity. Only 28% of health facilities and 34% of hospitals had what could be called “reliable” access to electricity (without prolonged interruptions in the past week). Rural Health Statistics 2018 data showed nearly 40,000 government health facilities which serve an estimated 580 million people in rural India are still operating without electricity supply.
More often than not, health facilities are forced to choose dirty, noisy, and CO2-spewing diesel generators as primary or back-up power systems.
Even when health facilities are connected to the grid, many suffer frequent power outages. WHO estimates that nearly 70% of medical devices (which are sensitive to voltage fluctuations) that are used in developing countries fail, with poor power quality a major contributing factor.
Light every birth
Imagine the impact of power deficiencies on the provision of health care. Health workers struggle to work in near-darkness, relying on kerosene lanterns, candles, and cell phones. Medical equipment dependent on electricity lay dormant. There is no way to store vaccines or medications reliant on refrigeration. Blood banking becomes impossible.
Most of the excess deaths in Africa from the Ebola crisis were caused because the health service shut down.
“It’s not just the direct effect,” Gates writes. “It’s also the panic, the overload, and the things that affect health workers because you’re already at very limited capacity.”
Distributed renewable energy solutions (such as stand-alone solar and mini-grid) represent a clean, cost-effective, rapidly deployable and reliable option to electrify healthcare centers, transforming lives whilst bolstering global efforts to achieve UN Sustainable Development Goal No. 3 – good health and wellbeing.
Speakers at the 2019 Clean Energy for Health Care Conference noted that distributed renewable energy and energy-efficient medical devices hold great potential for creating stronger and more resilient health systems in Africa and beyond. Solar systems can facilitate reliable and uninterrupted electricity supply critical for 24/7 emergency services, safe obstetric deliveries, neonatal care, and a robust cold chain for vaccines.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) recently announced that under its Solar for Health Project, solar PV systems have been installed in 900 health facilities in 11 countries, including 388 facilities in Zimbabwe. The initiative was designed to increase access to health services by vulnerable populations, reduce carbon emissions, decrease electricity costs, and improve the overall power supply of health facilities.
We Care Solar has delivered more than 5,000 compact “Solar Suitcases” to maternal health facilities in Africa and Asia to improve the quality of obstetric care. (Disclosure: ImpactAlpha editor David Bank is a longtime member of We Care Solar’s board of directors.)
We Care Solar’s countrywide Light Every Birth initiative was launched in four countries and ensured that 430 Liberian frontline health facilities have reliable power for childbirth. Liberian Minister of Health, Dr. Wilhelmina Jallah welcomed this “life-changing” initiative, recalling the struggles of health providers relying on lanterns for nighttime care.
“They put you on the table but they cannot even see what they are doing because it’s dark…”
In India, primary health centers are the foundation of the country’s rural healthcare system. The Chhattisgarh State Renewable Energy Development Agency and the state health department have collaborated to install, operate and maintain solar PV systems in 900 health centers across the state. Approximately 80,000 patients have benefited from these health centers per day leading to improved health outcomes. Access to regular electricity through PV electrification has also enabled reliable water supply to primary health centers, powered surgical equipment, fans, and baby heaters. With adequate financing, the program could be extended to 40,000 health facilities for $85 million.
With news headlines are dominated by COVID-19, we may not think about our reliance on power for health services. Electricity is needed for every aspect of emergency care: medical lighting, laboratory tests, x-rays, CT scans, and the ventilators so vitally important for respiratory care.
Solar electricity offers an immediate, cost-effective, and sustainable solution to this global challenge. As the world responds to the global pandemic of COVID-19, let us not overlook the importance of clean reliable electricity for health care. In developing countries, it is needed now more urgently than ever.
Dr. Laura Stachel is the executive director and co-founder of the nonprofit We Care Solar, which promotes safe motherhood and reduces maternal mortality in developing regions by providing health workers with solar electricity for medical lighting, mobile communication, and medical devices.
Benson Kibiti is director of communications for Power for All, based in Nairobi. Power for All advances renewable, decentralized electrification solutions as the fastest, most cost-effective and sustainable approach to universal energy access.