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August 25, 2014

More Than A Light Bulb: How Clean Energy Is Powering Health Clinics Beyond the Grid

image from http://s3.amazonaws.com/hires.aviary.com/k/mr6i2hifk4wxt1dp/14082517/84f7adfe-fd9c-486c-bfbc-dd63d4ae311a.png
Photo courtesy of SunFarmer

It is hard to overstate the effect that access to reliable electricity can have on people’s lives in rural communities worldwide.  

That’s why we are so supportive of interventions like off-grid clean energy that not only put power directly in people’s hands, but do it in a time frame that matters: now, not decades from now. That’s something traditional grid extension and centralized power plants simply can’t do.

Despite the important leg up off-grid clean energy provides these communities, we’ve heard some concerns that these interventions can only be used to provide lighting and supplies like light bulbs.  This couldn’t be further from the truth.

To help us understand what kinds of resources these companies are powering with clean energy, we turned to SunFarmer, a U.S.- and Canadian-based non-profit organization, to learn more about off-grid companies powering health clinics.

SunFarmer is a pretty unique organization. As a non-profit, they have learned important lessons all off-grid companies should live by, including not to give things away for free. That’s why SunFarmer employs a rent-to-own business model that specifically seeks to empower local companies to deliver clean energy services to hospitals and health clinics. SunFarmer’s value to these companies is simple, but big: it unlocks crucial financing. Given how hard financing is to come by in this market, that’s incredibly important.

In addition, SunFarmer provides ever critical after-sales service in the form of technical assistance, quality assurance, and system maintenance -- while local partners lead on project management. SunFarmer is also developing a monitoring and control platform to track the levels of energy production, observe the system’s battery performance, and communicate any issues (including energy theft) to health clinic staff. All of these critical data points prove that the next big frontier for these markets is data analytics.

But why should SunFarmer target large consumers, like health clinics, when most organizations working in this clean energy market start with small household needs -- including lighting and mobile phone charging?

The answer is simple: the founders of SunFarmer were moved by the negative effect unreliable power has on 300,000 healthcare facilities worldwide. These critical public health care providers suffered from hours of power shortages and cuts that were keeping them from doing their job -- saving lives.

When hospitals or health clinics lack reliable power, they can’t refrigerate vaccines.  They can’t perform surgeries.  Babies are delivered by flashlights or candlelight.  Health clinic staff with SunFarmer projects have described the difference between delivering babies in darkness versus light, noting, “Previously, delivery was difficult using flashlights held in the mouth as they could neither see clearly nor could give instructions.”  

This is particularly problematic during complicated births; as noted by the UN Sustainable Energy for All Initiative, lack of access to electricity is a leading cause of maternal mortality.  Worst of all, if a medical team doesn’t have a charged cell phone, they can’t even call for extra help in an emergency situation.  In short, reliable power is critical, and in the areas where these hospitals are located, the centralized grid has been failing miserably.

In Nepal, for instance, these hospitals may receive power from the grid for as little as four hours per day. Even the widely-used replacement for the unreliable grid -- diesel gen-sets -- aren’t able to keep up with the demand. That’s because the diesel fuel needed may not be delivered for days or weeks on end and may be diluted with water and other chemicals -- not to mention, its hefty price tag.

For six health clinics (and counting), SunFarmer’s Nepal staff and local partner, Gham Power, have changed this.

Funding from the SunEdison Foundation, MaRS, and crowd-funded contributions (through Indiegogo and Kiva) have allowed SunFarmer to install solar projects at six health clinics, with two more projects expected to reach completion in the next two to three months.  All projects are 2-kilowatts or above and provide the reliable power the grid and diesel gen-sets have failed to supply in the past.

Currently operating in Nepal, SunFarmer plans to expand.  They are raising $5 million to install solar projects at 250 more health clinics around the world.        

What SunFarmer drives home is that clean energy access has far-ranging benefits -- including empowering women by making maternal health care services more readily available and assuring safe deliveries in a well-lit space.

This is why the Sierra Club’s International Program advocates for energy access. Because it’s always been about more than a light bulb, and it’s time the world woke up to what Beyond the Grid markets are capable of delivering.  

-- Vrinda Manglik, Associate Campaign Representative, International Clean Energy Access

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