Solar energy can power healthcare sector during pandemics

Solar energy can power healthcare sector during pandemics

18 May 2020

 

The demand for electricity globally has declined significantly during the Covid-19 outbreak, with many people working from home and offices and factories having shutdown as a result of lockdown measures imposed by governments.

In Europe, utilities have observed weekday demand for electricity akin to pre-crisis weekend levels, with energy demand dropping by about 20 per cent. The picture is similar in the Middle East.

“We are seeing lower demand for energy in the region, and we expect a lower demand outlook in the medium term” says Brendan Cronin, head of Middle East for Afry Management Consulting.

However, while the drop in demand has eased pressure on generation resources in many developed countries, the picture is markedly different in developing countries and states and areas affected by war and conflict. These countries, which were already suffering from shortages of power for long periods of the day, are facing a major challenge to ensure sufficient electricity is available for hospitals and healthcare facilities during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Regional shortfall

Out of the 15 countries analysed for Energy & Utilities’ Mena 2025 power outlook, Iraq, Libya and Lebanon all recorded a higher demand for power over the past two years. Perhaps not unexpected, due to the numerous conflicts in each of these countries, governments have been unable to invest in developing new generation resources or repair damaged infrastructure.

Iraq, in particular, was already facing a major challenge to meet growing demand for power across the country, with installed capacity, 15GW, significantly lower than the 23.5GW peak demand recorded in 2018. With the Covid-19 outbreak causing oil prices to plummet, the oil exporter is facing an even greater challenge to increase the capacity of its power sector and meet the demand of vital healthcare services.

Yemen is also facing significant challenge in meeting the demand for power. In 2014, the last time official data was released for the country’s power sector, only two thirds of the population had access to electricity. The situation has worsened significantly since the war began in 2015, with the number dropping to below 10 per cent by 2017, according to the World Bank.

The problem of power shortages is not unique, of course, to the Middle East. In Sub-Saharan Africa, Powering Healthcare estimates that only 28 per cent of healthcare facilities have a reliable electricity supply, with only 43 per cent of the population electrified at all.

Long-term challenge

The challenge facing countries in ensuring electricity supply for vital services will not just intensify during the initial waves and peaks of the coronavirus – many countries will emerge from the pandemic with significantly damaged economies and less money to spend on key utilities infrastructure.

The rapidly growing clean energy sector is offering significant opportunities to provide power for critical healthcare infrastructure.

Photovoltaic (PV) solar panels with energy storage systems can be installed quickly to rural and off-grid areas to serve health clinics. In addition to providing electricity for hospitals, PV solar installations can be used for water treatment and pumping facilities to ensure hygenic sanitation and water supplies for healthcare facilities.

While much has been made of the ambitious climate change targets and agreements reached as part of the Paris Climate Accord in 2015, the driving force behind the rapid deployment of renewables across the world is the sharp fall in cost of clean energy. This is particularly the case for PV solar, with costs having fallen by more than 10 per cent over the last decade.

For off-grid and remote power supplies, solar energy is also often more reliable in addition to being more cost efficient than existing diesel generators. Daniel Zywietz, CEO and founder of Enerwhere, recently told Energy & Utilities during a live webinar that solar remains the cheapest form of generation for off-grid power generation, even with the dramatic fall in fuel oil prices with the Covid-19 outbreak.

“When you look at the baseline cost of liquid fuels today, it is less than half of what it was two months ago,” says Zywietz. “However, [solar] is still cost competitive against diesel fuel with a solar-hybrid fuel plant, even with this oil price. While the savings are not what they were 3 months, it is still a saving.”

“And in an environment where people and companies are looking for cost savings, it is even more important.”

Financial support

While the economic benefits of using solar energy to meet the electricity needs of rural areas is clear, many regional administrations and central governments that were already struggling to direct adequate funds into their utilities sectors are facing even more economic hardship as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak. International financial institutions will play a key role in ensuring that solar power is harnessed to meet the growing demand for healthcare services across developing countries.

The World Bank’s Yemen Emergency Electricity Access Project provides a prime example of the importance of international financial support to the development of solar power for healthcare services in developing countries.

As part of the project, the World Bank’s International Development Agency partnered the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) to support healthcare facilities across war-torn Yemen. Under the scheme, PV solar is being installed across the country to provide power for clinics, particularly in rural areas.

The Al-Salam Hospital in the Lahj Governorate of the country was a hospital that was forced to close following the onset of the war. However, after the installation of solar systems under the emergency access programme, the hospital now receives 24-hour power supplies and is able to receive and treat patients.

While multilateral agencies can support the development of solar power through emergency and aid programmes, and also through financing support mechanisms such as the IFC’s Scaling Solar initiative, governments will need to support vulnerable energy consumers and utilities.

Support must be provided to utilities to ensure that they remain operational and continue to deliver power during the pandemic, and loans and financial waivers will be critical to ensure that power can be delivered to where it needed most.

The World Bank has also stressed recently the importance of financial assistance and loans for off-grid power and solar suppliers to ensure that services continue.

Innovation

The private sector can also support the development of energy services and solutions for healthcare facilities in remote and developing areas. In 2017, Germany’s Siemens and its partner Solarkiosk inaugurated a ‘Connected Solar Clinic’ at a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan.

With almost 700,000 Syrian refugees having fled to neighbouring Jordan since the civil war began in 2011, there has been a sharp increase in demand for healthcare services. The clinic is able to treat up to 75 patients a day, and is equipped with high-specification medical diagnostics and treatment equipment such as ultrasound and hematology lab. The Connected Solar Clinic is powered by solar energy and is completely independent of Jordan’s electricity grid, providing a blueprint for how solar energy can be harnessed to deliver healthcare services at a time when it has never been more important.



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