Powering a Response: Off-Grid Solar’s Role in a Pandemic

Off-grid solar has potential to supplement energy supply for healthcare and beyond to support the management and mitigation of health crises in sub-Saharan Africa.

By Justin Larson and Ewan Bloomfield, Power Africa Off-grid Project, and
Cole Johnson and Liz Pfeiffer, Power Africa Southern Africa Energy Program

In its 2019 report the Global Health Security Indexa collaboration between Johns Hopkins University, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, and other industry bodies — concluded that no country was fully prepared for a pandemic [1]. This now-prescient conclusion is playing out in real time around the world, with many national and local healthcare systems struggling to cope with a surge of patients in response to the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) pandemic that is straining healthcare infrastructure required to test and treat millions of patients. As local transmission of COVID-19 spreads, infection numbers and the demand for healthcare services continue to rise. This increase in demand places an additional strain on healthcare systems, particularly health facilities without reliable electricity.

The evolving COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts are disrupting livelihoods and ways of living for many around the world. Sub-Saharan Africa is no exception. The global response to the pandemic is rapidly shifting the way of living for many communities and households. While necessary to reduce transmission and save lives, social distancing measures and movement restrictions are changing how communities and economies operate and how low-income populations earn a living. Children are staying home instead of going to school. Workers are furloughed or telecommuting where possible. Supply chains necessary for transporting goods (i.e. agricultural products) to market are temporarily disrupted. People throughout the sub-Saharan region are faced with navigating a new normal.

However, herein lies an opportunity for the off-grid solar energy sector to play a role in powering a pandemic response. First, given the limited reach of the national grids in many sub-Saharan African countries, off-grid solar is and will continue to be a necessary part of health facilities’ electrification plans. Second, aside from health facility electrification, off-grid solar can support the rapid deployment of health infrastructure. Third, as households and businesses adjust to the various disruptions the pandemic is causing, off-grid solar can help bridge the gap and provide solutions to the non-health related issues the pandemic brings (e.g. income limitations for day laborers and closing of schools).

1. Off-Grid Solutions for Energy Needs of Healthcare Facilities

The need for reliable electricity for health facilities in sub-Saharan Africa is not new. Government-led, donor funded, and private sector initiatives were already underway before the COVID-19 pandemic. Power Africa has been partnering with donor healthcare programs in Nigeria since 2018 to develop innovative approaches to delivering decentralized power to healthcare infrastructure in rural areas. In Ghana, Power Africa supports the private sector in the development of sustainable business models through the brokering of partnerships such as Stella Futura and the Christian Health Association in Ghana (CHAG). CHAG facilities collectively provide 30–40% of health services in Ghana annually — that is about 6 million lives impacted. Stella is developing a pipeline from the current 344 CHAG health facilities to supply solar power to off-grid health clinics through power purchase agreements.

These health facility electrification initiatives are now only rising in priority and receiving additional resources and attention. The role for off-grid is clear: From electrification of rural health clinics in remote communities to powering of urban and peri-urban hospitals, off-grid solar can increase the ability to effectively respond to increased demand for healthcare services that require electricity to function while providing reliable and clean power that reduces reliance on diesel generators. Health facility electrification via off-grid solar is relevant now more than ever before.

2. Off-grid Energy Solutions for Health Needs Beyond Health Facility Electrification

  • Testing and contact tracing that require healthcare workers to go into communities that currently have no electricity access.
  • Electronic communication (e.g. radio, television, loud hailing, mobile phones, etc.) for awareness campaigns and patient follow-up.
  • Infrastructure to support handwashing campaigns.
  • Temporary infrastructure to quarantine and care for patients who test positive.

Fortunately, the off-grid sector is already retooling and providing solutions to some of these needs. For example, off-grid solar can power rapidly-deployed solutions, such as containerized field labs and clinics (e.g. Winch Energy and TellCoSOL). “Solar suitcases”, that were previously developed to provide power in off-grid maternity wards, can support mobile health workers temporarily posted in off-grid communities. Remote testing facilities and field labs will be a necessity for a comprehensive testing and contact tracing campaign. Temporary quarantine/isolation facilities will allow for patients to separate themselves from their community, when they normally would not be able to, and ensure the safety of their neighbors and loved ones. Solar-powered touchless handwashing stations (e.g. SolaWash, pictured below) can ensure a successful handwashing initiative in off-grid communities. Alongside donor partners, Power Africa is already playing a critical role in facilitating emergency power solutions to healthcare infrastructure. In close collaboration with the Lagos State Government, Power Africa is performing geospatial and statistical analyses to help the Nigerian Government identify vulnerable communities.

3. Disruptions and Solutions from the Off-grid Energy Sector to Help Navigate the Impact of Pandemics on Business and Community

However, these disruptions provide another set of opportunities for off-grid solar to provide solutions. For example, Azuri in Kenya offers a solar home system bundled with an energy efficient television (AzuriTV) that is allowing children in rural Kenya to access educational programs while schools are closed. SolarWorks sewing machines are being used to manufacture facemasks in Mozambique and Malawi. BBOXX in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is leveraging their networks to provide communities with current and accurate health information while also continuing to provide jobs for its call-center employees. Loon, which deployed a network of its high-flying 4G base stations in Puerto Rico as part of an emergency response, can help in the facilitation of teleworking and increasing connectivity in off-grid communities.

A helium filled balloon carrying a 4G base station that is solar-powered.
A helium filled balloon carrying a 4G base station that is solar-powered.
Loon LLC (a subsidiary of Alphabet, Google’s parent company) recently launched its first internet balloon in January and has just arrived over Kenya. The helium filled balloon carries a 4G base station that is solar-powered and sits 20 kilometers above the earth in the stratosphere. Photo Credit: Loon

The Road Ahead

  1. Nuclear Threat Initiative and Center for Health Security, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, “Global Health Security Index — Building Collective Action and Accountability.”
  2. Kibiti and Stachel, “Coronavirus Is Not the Only Global Health Crisis. Just Ask ½ Billion People.”

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A U.S. Government-led partnership that seeks to add 30,000 MW and 60 million electricity connections in sub-Saharan Africa by 2030 > https://bit.ly/2yPx3lJ

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