Improving Rural Healthcare Amid COVID-19 Crisis by Installing Solar on Clinics

Experts believe that transitioning to renewable energies across healthcare operation will be beneficial


Amid the Coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis, nearly 20 leaders from research groups, think tanks, renewable energy companies, and health care services, have demanded to solarize all unelectrified healthcare sub-centers in rural India.

These leaders have highlighted that the ongoing COVID-19 crisis has shown several existing systemic gaps in services, especially to the rural poor and inadequate healthcare infrastructure is one of them, states the press release.

In a letter written to the government, including the Ministry of Power, NITI Aayog, and the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE), the representatives have emphasized the need for decentralized renewable energy.

According to the release, “Over 39,000 sub-centers (the first point of contact between primary health care system and the community) serving 230 million people in rural India lack electricity. This severely impacts their capacity to offer optimal healthcare to patients. Decentralized renewable energy can play a significant role in solving this problem quickly and affordably, for less than ₹30 (~$0.40) per person in initial capital expenditure.”

The per-person capital expenditure of ₹30 (~$0.40) is based on India Public Health Standard required equipment guidelines for primary healthcare centers and sub-centers. To supply 800 unelectrified primary healthcare centers, 39,000 unelectrified sub-centers with 5 kW and 2 kW solar PV, respectively, with 3-hour storage (cost calculated according to MNRE benchmark numbers). PHCs serve 25 villages and sub-centers serve four villages.

While the Pradhan Mantri Sahaj Bijli Har Ghar Yojana (SAUBHAGYA) program focused electrifying all households in rural and urban areas using solar, there is no dedicated program for the electrification of health centers resulting in several centers remaining unelectrified.

Further, the letter outlines four key interventions that the government can undertake to help improve the situation:

  • Expanding the program to install solar on clinics, drawing from the example of the Chhattisgarh state. Between 2012 and 2016, the Chhattisgarh State Renewable Energy Development Agency (CREDA) installed 2 kW off-grid solar PV rooftop systems across 570 PHCs.
  • Allocate dedicated funds for this initiative and include it in the national budget. The budget currently has a combined allocation of $12.8 billion for renewable energy and healthcare. Considering a benchmark cost of ₹74 (~$0.98)/W for solar PV system with 3-hour storage per sub-center, India can electrify all sub-centers for ₹6 billion (~$80 million), which is just 0.6% of the 2020-21 energy and healthcare budget.
  • Ensure long-term operations and sustainability by working through existing structures by setting aside a budget for periodic operations and maintenance to ensure sustainability beyond the 5-year warranty periods.
  • Promoting innovation to develop more financially viable and energy-efficient medical equipment. Most medical equipments are highly inefficient in terms of power usage, increasing the financial burden on rural clinics. Manufacturers must be incentivized to develop more efficient, durable appliances suitable for rural healthcare services.

“Sustainable health infrastructure that leverages innovative, decentralized, and energy-efficient solutions will bring huge dividends for health in rural India. Transitioning to renewable energies across healthcare operations will ensure efficient service delivery and improved health outcomes,” said Dr. Poornima Prabhakaran, deputy director, Centre for Environmental Health, PHFI

Citing an example of Chhattisgarh, the letter states that the recent experience from solarizing sub-centers in the state has shown that service improved significantly with the addition of rooftop PV and batteries, resulting in better healthcare outcomes (especially for maternal and neonatal), protecting sensitive medical equipment and saving money.

According to Adwait Joshi, the chief executive officer, Clean Energy Access Network (CLEAN), “Powering rural healthcare infrastructure with decentralized renewable energy is an obvious choice now and in the future. It complements the government’s goal of providing clean and seamless energy beyond households. Also, it gives healthcare workers options to access advanced technologies such as telemedicine, vaccine storage, baby-incubators, and many others. COVID-19 is a crisis and an opportunity to accelerate up-gradation of rural healthcare infrastructure to a higher level with access to reliable, clean energy.”

Earlier, Mercom reported that the Council on Energy, Environment, and Water (CEEW) fund out that solar-powered primary healthcare centers in Chhattisgarh admitted over 50% more patients and conducted almost twice the number of child deliveries in a month compared to power-deficit PHCs that lacked solar system.

In October 2019, Maharashtra’s Kasturba Health Society issued a tender for an on-grid solar power pack of 50 kW and a 75 kW rooftop solar.

Image credit: Oleg Savitsky / CC BY-SA