Recently, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres praised India for raising the renewable energy consumption from 17% to 24% despite the pandemic. He said so because the use of renewable energy has increased in many parts of the country.
The community health center (CHC) at Chandanpur in Sadar administrative block of Odisha’s Puri district, 55 km from the state capital Bhubaneswar, is one such example. The CHC has a solar power system, as an alternative to grid power and diesel generator sets (DG sets) to meet emergencies.
“Whether disaster or power failures, during summer the hospital staff used to face difficulties in providing continuous health services to the community who rely on this health center. Since the installation of solar power system here in October last year, issues due to power cut started easing out,” said Khyanaprabha Das, head nurse at Chandanpur CHC.
The single diesel generator was not enough for the CHC that catered to a population of more than 1 lakh. Now with the installation of solar panels on the roof of the CHC, the scenario has completely changed. The renewable energy now meets most of the requirements of the health center.
Power cuts during cyclones
Two days before Cyclone Fani that struck Odisha coast on 3 May, 2019, and made landfall only 7 km from this CHC, the local administration had shifted most of the people living in low-lying areas to multipurpose cyclone shelters, to avoid health crisis during disaster.
Khyanaprabha Das narrated the incidents the CHC’s medical staff faced during the 1999 Super Cyclone and in 2019 Cyclone Fani that destroyed lives and livelihoods. “The administration moved the pregnant women of this block to Chandanpur CHC just before Cyclone Fani,” she said.
“On the same day we conducted one delivery with the help of mobile phones’ flashlights, when there was no water supply, and with a storm raging over us,” Khyanaprabha Das, who has been working in this CHC since 1994, told VillageSquare.in. “It was a miracle definitely.”
And the newborn child needed an incubator for warmth. “It was not possible to connect the incubator with a DG set so we followed the traditional process and wrapped the child in a towel to give warmth,” she said. “We had such a difficult time that it is still fresh in our minds.”
Switching to solar
Electricity supply, which is essential to provide health services, was completely cut off for nearly two-and-a-half months in the entire district after Cyclone Fani. Despite the lack of electric power, the staffs attended to accident victims, and delivered four or five babies on a daily basis.
During and after Cyclone Fani the community health center was completely dependent on the generator. With the installation of solar panels, the dependency has shifted. Solar power has also reduced the expenses of the CHC on diesel. On an average the CHC used to spend around 45 liters of diesel a day to run the generator. Now it has reduced.
The solar panels were installed in October and have been functional since December. The staffs are now confident of attending to patients who come during any emergency or when there is a power cut. “Earlier we used to wait for the operator to start the DG set and then we used to attend to patients. Now it is just a switch away,” said the head nurse.
One of the success stories after installation of solar system that Khyanaprabha Das remembered is that of a woman in labor coming to the CHC a month back when there was a power cut. Das said that it was a complicated case and they could use the ventouse – a vacuum extraction procedure to assist the mother during labor – only because they had power from the solar panels.
SEEDS, a non-profit organization, and Selco Foundation have built this energy model for community resilience and long-term sustainability. “During disasters electricity supply is the first thing that gets disrupted, creating difficulties for a health center to serve the needy,” said Manu Gupta, co-founder of SEEDS.
“Our approach was providing sustainable energy to ensure a reliable and resilient alternative during disasters and reduce dependency on grid power,” Manu Gupta told VillageSquare.in.
The generator could supply only to a few facilities. But solar is a complete change. The renewable energy powers the operation theatre, labor room, labor ward and other essential services. “Major facilities are connected to the solar power system. The remaining will be also be connected soon,” said Madhusmita Swain, block program manager, Chandanpur CHC.
The solar panels were installed on the roof of the CHC and now connected to major requirements of the heath center. The staffs are also being trained to use the renewable energy during emergency. The switch boards are painted green so that the community and medical staff are aware of the renewable energy and use it.
“Dust on solar panels will slow down recharging and hamper uninterrupted electricity during emergency. So, for maintaining the solar panels, youth from the community have been trained and they clean the panels regularly. It also creates an ownership among the community,” said a member of SEEDS. Going forward, pathway lights, charging stations, water heater and water pumps would be powered by the solar system.
“Power is the essence of all things in a health facility especially in an emergency. Solar powered system has given us an alternative to grid power and diesel generators. I feel, in remote villages, where electricity is a distant dream solar power can be a part of public health facilities,” said the head nurse.
During summer, power cut for 4 to 5 hours at a stretch is normal in rural areas and Chandanpur is no exception. For any minor or major medical need, earlier villagers had to wait or visit the district hospital further away. Now things have totally changed.
“As the Chandanpur CHC has electricity because of the solar panels, now people from adjacent villages also come and get treatment here during emergency and power cuts. It helps to save our money and time. The green energy is a blessing to poor and needy people like us,” Ramachandra Nayak, a resident of Chandanpur, told VillageSquare.in.
Rakhi Ghosh is a Bhubaneswar-based journalist. Views are personal. Email: email@example.com