Health facilities cannot effectively function without power. Every emergency unit, maternity ward, surgery block, pharmacy and laboratory relies on electricity to power the lights, to refrigerate vaccines and to run essential medical equipment. Without a dependable power source, the health and well-being of entire communities is put at risk. Yet all too often, particularly in remote areas, health facilities face significant power shortages. A 2014 World Health Organization review  revealed that one in four sub-Saharan health facilities had no access to electricity, while only 28% of health facilities and 34% of hospitals had what could be called “reliable” access to electricity (with-out prolonged interruptions in the past week).
Solar power is changing this reality. By installing solar energy photovoltaic systems (PV) in health facilities across Africa, the Arab States and Central Asia, UNDP is working to ensure that health facilities all over the world have access to reliable, cost-effective, and sustainable power.
The benefits of solar power for the health sector are multiple and far-reaching. The installation of solar systems ensures:
Solar systems provide a stable and reliable energy supply, even in the most remote locations, meaning more patients can access the public health services they need. As a dependable source of power, solar systems also support the delivery of high quality health services by ensuring the reliable running of temperature and hygrometry controls, adequate lighting systems, refrigeration and cold rooms and IT networks for efficient stock and management information systems.
Solar power cuts costs. Lower power bills for health facilities also means significant savings for re-investment into improved health services. UNDP estimates a 100 per cent return on investment within 2 to 3.5 years when health facilities with unreliable energy sources are installed with solar power. The write off time is under two years in countries like South Sudan, Chad, and Guinea Bissau where facilities rely solely on diesel generators.
Energy plays a vital role in enabling health care delivery but it can also inflict significant environmental harm. The decommissioning of highly polluting and noisy diesel generators considerably improves the local environment around health facilities, while the installation of solar systems also reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
Solar for Health is making a significant contribution to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by world leaders at the United Nations. Specifically it can help countries in their efforts to achieve SDGs 3, 7 and 13: good health and well-being, affordable and clean energy and climate action.
In Zimbabwe, HIV clinics across the country will be soon equipped with solar power. Many clinics currently depend on four hours of unstable power supply a day. With solar installations they will have power 24/7 and patients can get the care they need, when they need it.
Thanks to having a reliable power source, the clinics where solar systems have been installed are now capable of more and better services. The energy generated is used to maintain the quality of medicines and laboratory reagents. Equipment sterilization has improved and cold-chain for vaccine storage is safely maintained. Solar panels also enable water pumping and facilitates water purification – a pivotal achievement in a country in which water-borne diseases are the major killers of children. Finally, electricity opens the option of a wider range of diagnostic equipment required for malaria, tuberculosis and HIV patient monitoring.
In Zambia, UNDP has been working in close partnership with Medical Stores Limited (MSL), an autonomous government agency mandated to receive, store and distribute pharmaceutical health products across the country. MSL has faced regular power interruptions in the past, affecting the effective running of warehouses, including the refrigeration of medicines and vaccines. With funding received from the Norwegian Emergency Preparedness System (NOREPS), UNDP has supported MSL to install a solar powered energy system, combined with an energy efficient temperature control system covering 3000 m2 storage space.
With the solar panels in place, MSL is now able to ensure the effective running of its operations, even when there is no power from the national hydro-powered grid. This is vital to ensuring quality health services to the Zambian population, as interruptions in power supply had previously lead to delays in the processing of requests from health facilities across the country. Furthermore, the solar power system has also ensured cold chain pharmaceutical items remain stored at the desired temperatures.
UNDP estimates that just over US$ 300 million is needed in Sudan, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Liberia, Guinea Bissau, Mali, and Sudan, to provide solar power to half of all primary health care facilities, all medical warehouses, and the emergency wards the main hospitals. Now is the time to make this vision a reality. Solar systems have become sustainable, cheaper than they have ever been and the technology has become more compact, reliable and with fewer maintenance requirements.