Decentralized solar for reliable electricity in healthcare and education sectors

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The status of reliability of electricity supply, particularly in rural and remote areas remains work in progress.New Delhi: The critical role ofprimary healthcareand early-stage education is well recognized in a country’s journey towards attaining developed country status. The role ofreliable electricityin delivery of both of these, however, is not that well understood. But lately the criticality of electricity in these foundational sectors of the economy is being noticed by the Indian government. Economic Survey 2020 noted that (a) states with larger proportion of school with access to electricity have higher literacy rates and (b) there was a positive relationship between power consumption and fall in infant mortality rates in the country. The Survey further indicated that “many health improvement schemes – providing pediatric care, new-born emergency services, and successful vaccination rely heavily on the availability of electricity at the health centers. With growing importance of the indicators, it is important that reliable electricity connections are provided at the health care centers. Electricity also increases access to ICT, improves the quality of education, and helps retain teachers. Electricity also enables children to study after dark” [1]. There are other independent studies highlighting this relationship. For instance, a WRI India working paper titled `Priorities into Healthcare and Education in India: A Review of National and Subnational Policies’ states that “India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare focuses on reducing maternal mortality and infant mortality rates by targeting improvement in access to 24/7 health services for childbirth, neonatal and paediatric care, and timely vaccinations. These services depend on the availability of electricity, which is needed to operate and sterilize medical equipment, refrigerate vaccines, incinerate and treat medical waste, improve patient access and staff retention, reduce absenteeism, and make working conditions at facilities safer. Electricity access can also enable remote health facilities to connect with specialists via telemedicine initiatives.” [2].On the other hand, the WRI India study also noted that “Jyotigram Yojana’, launched by the Gujarat government in 2003, rationed electricity supply for agriculture to provide 24/7 supply for other rural users, including schools and primary health centers. It improved the functioning of medical equipment, child immunization and maternal health services, and the reach of ICT. Studies in Maharashtra and Jharkhand observe that the frequency of electricity outages in health facilities influences patients’ preferences for accessing them for maternal health services.” Yet another paper `Reduced health services at under-electrified primary healthcare facilities: Evidence from India’ says: “lack of electricity access is associated with a significant and large decrease in the number of deliveries (64 percent), number of in-patients (39 percent), and number of out-patients (38 percent). We further find that lower level of electricity access at primary health centers is disproportionately associated with adverse effects on women’s access to safe and quality healthcare” [3].

While India achieved almost 100% electrification through its ambitious `SAUBHAGYA’ scheme’; as a first step, universal household access to electricity was the main focus, and rightly so. The status of reliability of electricity supply, particularly in rural and remote areas remains work in progress. Why, reliable electricity supply even in some of important cities in the national capital region cannot be taken for granted, the reasons may well be camouflaged as `local faults’. In fact, Prayas publication titled ` Improving electricity reliability in rural healthcare centres through battery storage’ echoes this when it says that “The Rural Health Statistics 2019-20 makes for sobering reading. a large number of Sub Centres (28%) presently do not even have access to electricity, with the same number just under 5% for PHCs. Considering the shortfall in healthcare centres and the likelihood that these new facilities, as and when they come up would be located in even more remote rural areas, the electricity access issue is not likely to be resolved immediately” [4].

It is puzzling that when the country is making impressive strides in the field ofrenewableenergy, why our primary health centres and educational institutions in peri-urban and rural areas have to make do with such problems. With the current levels of technological advancements on one hand and steadily reducing battery prices, the choice should have been obvious: decentralized solar systems with storage. Or is it that in the race of GWs and MWs, we are losing the sight of kWs? Less than sterling experiences with such systems in past should not be taken as a yardstick. Over the years, several such systems have been installed in the country, mainly through philanthropic or CSR support. The main challenges faced by such initiatives included lack of ownership of solar systems in such institutions (primarily because the existing personnel in PHCs or in schools lacked such background) and no arrangement (including the budget head) to ensure maintenance beyond the project/initial AMC period. That many of these systems were in remote rural areas, did nothelp either.

It is time to have a fresh look at such systems from the perspective of their long-term viability. Obviously, healthcare centres and schools cannot be expected to divert their scarce resources to non-core areas. Perhaps, there is a possibility to rope in reputable, regional solar players to take it up on an aggregated `Solar energy as a Service’ model, bringing together a large number of small solar systems in a region. Secondly, if today we are talking of tele-medicine as a feasible mean for diagnosis and treatment, there is no reason not to deploy the cutting-edge technology for remote diagnostics of solar systems. Fortunately, today country has players who are using IoT in conjunction with machined learning to continuously keep a tab on solar system’s performance and trigger the preventive maintenance. The remote diagnostics can very well be paired with especially trained local youth or `Suryamitra’ now scattered across the villages, together with spare parts stocked at strategic locations; to make sure that these solar systems do not face down-time. Time for such decentralized solar systems is ripe from one other perspective as well. And that is `repurposed’ or `Second-Life’ Lithium batteries. Ranging from used batteries from electronic devices like laptops to those from EVs, increasingly start-ups are focussing on how to use end-of-life batteries for stationary applications. This not only brings down the storage costs further but reduce the carbon-footprint drastically. Essentially, what is required is to glen lessons from past experiences but not get bogged down with history.

`Ayushman Bharat’ and `Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan’ will remain handicapped till each and every healthcare facility, each school and hostel, has access to uninterrupted electricity supply. Moreover, creating infrastructure is sufficient only as long as it is kept shipshape on a continuous basis. The biggest advantage of renewable energy is that the resources are distributed all over the country, making application of smaller, decentralized solar systems a logical conclusion. Moreover, any incentivization to promote decentralized solar systems’ applications for such fundamental aspects must be viewed from a long-term perspective, keeping in sight India’s ambition to become a developed country by 2047.

[This piece was written exclusively for ETEnergyworld by Amit Kumar, Senior Fellow, WRI India, and Former Senior Director, Social Transformation, TERI]References:1.

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