An estimated 38 million Indians rely on health facilities that are beyond the reach of India’s electric grid. Without access to regular power supply, many lifesaving interventions cannot be undertaken, posing a barrier to the attainment of universal health coverage as well as to key health-related Sustainable Development Goals. But thanks to organizations like the Chhattisgarh State Renewable Energy Development Agency (CREDA), this situation is beginning to change. CREDA operates in Chhattisgarh state, a region in eastern India so densely forested that grid extension is difficult. Providing quality care, especially at night, at primary health centers (PHCs) in the state proved highly challenging, which prompted CREDA and the Chhattisgarh State Health Department to work together to electrify the State’s PHCs with innovative solar technology. We talked with Eng. Sanjeev Jain, CREDA’s Chief Engineer, about CREDA’s groundbreaking solar program.
Below, please find our written interview with Sanjeev, which has been edited for context and clarity.
Luc Severi: First of all, congratulations to CREDA on winning the 2018 International Ashden Award for Sustainable Energy and Health! For those not familiar with CREDA’s work, why and how was CREDA created, and what are its main focus areas?
Sanjeev Jain: One in two health facilities in India is either un-electrified or has unreliable and irregular electrification. CREDA was created in response to this reality. As the State Nodal Agency of New and Renewable Energy for the Government of India in Chhattisgarh State, we promote and implement renewable energy projects for sustainable development, including off-grid and on-grid solar power plants, solar pumps for irrigation and drinking water, and solar mini-grids for remote village electrification.
LS: What is CREDA’s approach to electrifying health facilities in the state of Chhattisgarh?
SJ: Before we install a new system, we must determine the viability and efficiency of the electrification. To do this, we first conduct an energy audit of the health facility and ensure energy efficient appliances are in place. The capacity of the solar system and battery bank are then customized to the results of these audits, and designed based on actual daily electrical energy demand for lighting, operation of health equipment, etc. throughout the day and night.
LS: Can you highlight some of CREDA’s achievements thus far?
SJ: Since its first installations in 2011, CREDA has installed 9,400 off-grid solar PV plants totaling 28.6 MW; 40,000 solar PV pumps for irrigation totaling 153 MW; 8,100 solar PV pumps for drinking water totaling 7.2 MW; and 1,037 mini-grid solar PV plants for remote village electrification totaling 28.6 MW. The human impact of this work cannot be underestimated – CREDA’s solar electrification of 900 health centers and district hospitals has benefitted about 80,000 patients per day.
A solar PV installation in rural areas of Chhattisgarh State.
LS: The energy and health sectors don’t often coordinate and collaborate in designing health facility electrification programs. What led CREDA to work so closely with the State Health Department? What benefits did such collaboration bring to your work?
SJ: Initially, we installed solar PV systems in some primary health centers as pilot projects with the goal of providing uninterrupted power in rural areas. The result of these installations was improvements in health outcomes at the clinics due to the increased energy security that we were able to provide. Following the success of the pilot program, we continued the installation of solar in other facilities with the support of the State Health Department, and we are maintaining these systems through our robust Operation & Maintenance network to ensure uninterrupted power supply on a 24/7 basis.
After the installation of solar plants, health staff were able to provide health services more efficiently and throughout the night as well. Before the installations, it was hard or even impossible to provide health services at night. And we’re seeing results: As per the study conducted by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), we’re seeing 50 percent more patients admitted; twice the number of successful childbirths per month in solar powered PHCs compared to PHCs without solar PV systems; electricity cost savings at 90 percent of PHCs; improved day-to-day aspects of providing care at 98 percent of PHCs; and improved ability to provide services at night. The success of these projects makes the case for the expansion of solar PV installations in other sectors.
LS: Long-term maintenance has proven to be a very challenging barrier to overcome when electrifying public institutions. What strategies is CREDA using to ensure that the energy systems installed in the health facilities remain operational in the long-run? Are there any challenges to operating and maintaining the energy systems that you have yet to address?
SJ: Our main strategies to ensure functionality include proper site selection, as well as the assessment of the capacity and quality of systems and their components through inspection before, during, and after installation. It is the routine care and maintenance and monthly monitoring and performance checks by our dedicated field workers that are the main reasons the systems remain in operation in the long run.
Energy loss in storage and conversion from DC to AC as well as battery maintenance and replacement after their 5-to-6-year lifetime are major issues. Battery replacement is very expensive, so we are now planning to install lithium-ion batteries for energy storage, as they are better suited for the conditions under which the system needs to operate.
LS: Based on your experience, what advice would you share with other national or sub-national governments who are considering how to electrify off-grid health facilities?
SJ: When they are designed and deployed in the right way—i.e., with proper site selection and assessments, as well as continued monitoring and inspections—off-grid/decentralized solar PV systems can be the most dependable, affordable solution for supplying reliable, clean, green power on a 24/7 basis in health facilities to ensure access to both energy and healthcare. Electrification of health clinics in rural and resource-constrained communities can empower health care staff, provide stability and security to citizens, and even save lives. It’s an investment that pays off in dividends.