The success of solar systems at frontline healthcare centres in rural Chhattisgarh shows that renewable energy can play a vital role in improving healthcare delivery
Primary health centres in Chhattisgarh powered by solar panels catered to 50% more patients than centres that did not have similar installations, and helped twice the number of child deliveries every month, a study by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) has revealed. The findings point to a route map of how primary healthcare delivery, which is plagued by no or erratic power supply, can be dramatically improved in India by using renewable energy.
The CEEW study funded by Oxfam is based on an evaluation of 147 primary health centres (PHCs) in 15 districts of Chhattisgarh in central India, which included 83 that had installed solar photovoltaic systems. Although Chhattisgarh is a power-surplus state, a third of all PHCs either do not have electric supply or suffer from frequent power outages. About 90% of PHCs reported power cuts during peak operating hours and one-third of them experienced power cuts in the evening, the study found. Significantly, more than 21% of the PHCs reported damage of medical equipment due to voltage fluctuations.
The study found that solar-powered PHCs could significantly improve in-patient and outpatient services, emergency care, delivery services, and laboratory services in rural India, thus establishing a strong correlation between sustainable development goals that focus on good health and clean energy.
India has about 25,000 PHCs, according to the Rural Health Statistics 2016. Of the functional PHCs, 4.6% do not have power connections, which affect some 38 million rural households depending on them. One out of every two PHCs in the country suffers from unreliable power supply or has no electricity access at all, according to District Level Household and Facility Survey data. Unreliable and poor-quality electricity supply limits diagnostic and treatment services, reduces hours of operation to daytime, and forces patients to travel a longer distance in search of better healthcare.
Meeting multiple targets
“Scaling solar systems across PHCs is in India’s interest as it meets the targets of the National Solar Mission as well as the National Health Mission,” Arunabha Ghosh, Chief Executive Officer of CEEW, said in a statement. “While installing solar systems, priority should be given to power-deficit PHCs, especially those that have been designated to provide 24×7 services. Solar systems for PHCs must also be tailored to local needs and considerations.”
Between 2012-2016, the Chhattisgarh State Renewable Energy Development Agency (CREDA) installed 2 kWp off-grid solar PV rooftop systems in 570 PHCs. A solar PV system provides 3-4 hours of backup electricity for a PHC, CEEW found. Also, peak generation from solar PV systems coincides with peak load times for PHCs, which is between 12pm and 4pm. It makes solar power not only an effective backup system but also a potential primary mode of power supply, the New Delhi-based think tank said. “Taking a cue from CREDA, other states must also focus on creating robust operations and maintenance services for solar powered PHCs,” Ghosh said.
The economics of solar powered health centres are also attractive. In Chhattisgarh, 90% of the solar-powered PHCs reported cost savings from not buying diesel. Electricity generated by diesel costs INR 24-26 per kWh while solar plus battery costs around INR 12-14 per kWh, CEEW said.
The ability of solar-powered PHCs to operate cold chain, storing vaccines and drugs, and newborn care equipment also improved significantly in Chhattisgarh. Almost 25% of power-deficit PHCs currently relies exclusively on solar as a backup to run cold chain equipment. Ensuring continuous electricity supply to cold chains at PHCs is critical, especially in rural Chhattisgarh, where the infant mortality rate (43 per 1,000) is higher than the average for rural India (41).
Providing 5kW solar systems to all PHCs across India could contribute to about 160 MW of India’s target to install rooftop solar. If solar power were to be extended to cover all sub-centres (1 kW systems) and community health centres (8 kW systems), the total potential would be about 415 MW, CEEW said.