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Solar power just what the doctor ordered in Kenya

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 9 Jan 2012 10:30 GMT
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NAIROBI, Kenya (AlertNet) Faced with rising energy prices and frequent electricity blackouts, hospitals and medical clinics in Kenya are turning to solar energy to provide life-saving power.

The number of medical facilities using solar energy has been growing steadily, reaching about 300 in 2010, according to the Kenya Bureau of Statistics.

The region’s changing climate has contributed to increasingly severe droughts, causing water levels in hydro-electric dams to drop sharply. As a result, electricity costs have risen by more than 35 percent in the past year.

Some medical institutions, concerned the electric grid is becoming increasingly unreliable and costly, are using solar installations to provide backup or as the principal power source for some machines.

River Road Clinic, a private facility in Nairobi, has installed solar powered lighting and also uses a rechargeable battery to store solar power as a backup for mains electricity.  

“If the electricity goes off right now, the machines may be affected. If a patient is on life support, [the machines] just go off, hence the need for solar as a backup,” said Phillip Mutava, a lab technician at the clinic.

“The most important thing for any hospital or clinic is the welfare of the patient. We have to offer them the best service available ... Even when there is a blackout, we can always have power,” he added.

STORING SOLAR POWER

Photovoltaic cells can charge as long as they are exposed to daylight, so solar power can be generated and stored even when it is not sunny or if it is raining.

Since installing the solar equipment, the clinic’s electricity bill has dropped from an average of 70,000 Kenyan shillings a month (about $800) to 42,000 Ksh ($480), according to Mutava.

He said the solar installations had cut the clinic’s fuel costs for running generators, and lowered the occasional fire risk associated with conventional generators.

Most of the medical institutions embracing solar technology are small private clinics. They in some cases use solar energy to power dialysis machines, baby incubators, ventilators, drips and water heaters.

Dr. Nickolas Muraguri, head of the National AIDS and STD Control Programme, said he is aware of about 150 health facilities across the country using solar backup systems.

Most solar power is concentrated in rural hospitals, some of which lack a regular electricity connection.

Dr. Johnson Njoroge, who runs the Institute of Health Clinic, an hour’s drive from Nairobi, says that solar energy is particularly important in facilities that are distant from cities and where power outages sometimes last several days.

Njoroge’s clinic, which has seven doctors and more than a dozen nurses, relies on solar energy for 70 percent of its power needs. Its solar equipment cost around 310,000 shillings ($3,600) to purchase and install, he said.

PROBLEMS SCALING UP

But larger hospitals continue to rely principally on conventional generators, in part because of the costs associated with installing solar equipment on a large scale.

One wing of Nairobi Hospital, Kenya’s largest private hospital, is backed up by solar energy, but most of the institution uses mains power and generators, said Dr. Wanyoike Gichuhi, a consultant gynaecologist.

“As long as there are several generators, there is no need to worry. Solar is good but we do not see that as a priority,” said Gichuhi.

The use of solar energy in hospitals may increase as the price of solar products goes down. Solar equipment manufacturing plants are being opened in Kenya by private companies, leading to a decline in prices, and the government reduced taxes on the import of solar products in the past financial year.

The government has committed to improving medical services and increasing the use of green technology by consumers and institutions as part of its Vision 2030 development plan.

Dr. Evan Abwao, who works in private practice in Nairobi, backs the use of solar power in medical institutions and says more doctors should embrace green technology.

“Not only do I use solar as a power backup, but I use it almost full-time. Apart from making sure that life-saving machines are under solar, I also have to make sure that even the hospital food is cooked with solar-backed power,” Abwao said.

Gitonga Njeru is a science journalist based in Nairobi.

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