Can solar power solve India’s rural healthcare problems?
New Delhi: Are solar-powered primary healthcare centres (PHCs) the answer to India’s rural healthcare problems? A study of PHCs in Chhattisgarh has found that solar-powered PHCs could significantly improve in-patient services, out-patient services, emergency care, delivery services and laboratory services in rural India.
Solar-powered PHCs in Chhattisgarh admitted over 50% more patients and conducted almost twice the number of child deliveries in a month compared to power-deficit PHCs without a solar power system, said the study, carried out by Delhi-based think tank Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) and released on Thursday.
The study was funded by non-governmental organisation Oxfam India, which works on several social issues like poverty.
The study evaluated the role of electricity access on health outcomes in rural Chhattisgarh and found that solar-powered PHCs could significantly improve in-patient services, out-patient services, emergency care, delivery services and laboratory services in rural India.
The study is based on evaluation of 147 PHCs, including 83 having solar photovoltaic (PV) systems, across 15 districts in Chhattisgarh.
The study noted that despite being a power surplus state, one-third of PHCs in Chhattisgarh are either un-electrified or without regular power supply. It also observed that about 90% of PHCs reported power cuts during peak operating hours, one-third of the PHCs experienced power cuts in the evening and more than 21% of the PHCs reported damage of medical equipment due to voltage fluctuations.
During 2012-2016, the Chhattisgarh State Renewable Energy Development Agency (CREDA) installed off-grid solar PV (photovoltaic) rooftop systems across 570 PHCs in the state.
The CEEW study found that a solar PV system provides 3-4 hours of backup electricity for a PHC and “peak generation from solar PV systems coincides with peak load times for PHCs, 12pm - 4pm, making solar not simply an effective backup generation system but also a potential primary mode of power supply”.
“Higher comfort due to better lighting and running fans in the solar PHCs increased patients’ willingness to get admitted,” the study highlighted.
The study also revealed that in Chhattisgarh, 90% of the solar-powered PHCs reported cost savings from using solar PV systems over diesel generators as diesel power costs Rs24-26 per kWh (kilowatt hour), while solar battery costs around Rs12-14 per kWh.
The ability of solar-powered PHCs to operate cold chain, storing vaccines and drugs, and newborn care equipment was also better, said the study.
“Almost 1/4th of power-deficit PHCs currently rely exclusively on solar (power) 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) is higher than the average for rural India (41),” the study said.
The results of the study could be significant, especially for India, as a large number of PHCs have unreliable power supply or have no access to electricity at all, which affects diagnostic and treatment services, reduces hours of operation to daytime, and forces patients to travel more in search of better healthcare services.
The CEEW analysis pointed out that providing solar systems to all PHCs across India could contribute to about 160 MW of the rooftop target and if solar power were to be extended to cover sub-centres and community health centres, the total potential would be about 415MW.
India has a solar rooftop power target of 40,000MW by 2022, but it has not even crossed 2,000MW yet.
“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. In Chhattisgarh, CEEW found that solar provided a reliable power backup to PHCs, especially during peak load hours and after sundown,” said Arunabha Ghosh, CEEW’s chief executive officer.
Ghosh stressed that while installing solar systems, priority should be given to power-deficit PHCs, especially those that have been designated to provide 24x7 services.
“Solar systems for PHCs must also be tailored to local needs and considerations. Taking a cue from CREDA, other states must also focus on creating robust operations and maintenance services for solar powered PHCs,” he added.