Module 3: Electricity

Since the harnessing of electricity around the 18th century, those in the industrialized world have incorporated it into virtually all technologies. Perhaps the most ubiquitous examples of electricity in the developed world are electric lights. In the developing world, however, lights are not ubiquitous, and come nightfall, illumination in hospitals can be limited to candles and kerosene lamps. These limitations present clear obstacles to providing safe, appropriate, and timely care, especially in surgical and delivery wards.    

A Case Study: WE CARE Solar

In the developing world, the lack of electricity in delivery wards has contributed to maternal mortality rates in the hundreds of thousands each year. Most mothers deliver their babies at home, where 97 % of them lack electricity. While electronics infrastructure in Africa is limited compared with North America or Europe, many African countries have some of the most sunlight hours in the world.(1)  Combining these two pieces of information, Laura Stachel launched WE CARE Solar in Nigeria, an organization that seeks to use solar energy to provide lights and communication devices to African populations.

Today, WE CARE Solar has expanded to 9 countries within a year of operations, and has had tremendous feedback from local populations, who have used the technology to reduce the fear of night surgery and to improve clinical outcomes. Despite these successes, it is important to critically examine the drawbacks of solar energy to gain a fuller picture of the technology. The challenges and complexities of solar energy can be divided into three categories: technology, cost, and renewability.

The first challenge is technological. Solar technology is still relatively in a development stage, and more advances need to be done to increase the efficiency of the technology, which for most solar panels is currently around 40 %. The low efficiency results from the technical challenge of trying to harness a very diffuse solar energy. Because of this low efficiency, many solar panels need to be installed to generate energy on a large or even community-wide scale. Furthermore, the reliability of the technology is also questionable—cloudy days could prevent adequate energy collection for proper use at night. (2)

Cost is also a consideration. Solar technology is more expensive than conventional devices, and that makes it more challenging to use the technology on a large scale, if expansion beyond individual devices were desired. Because of the cost of the technology, the devices are also susceptible to being stolen.

The final drawback is sustainability, which seems counterintuitive to solar energy, given that it is considered to be a renewable resource. Nevertheless, because solar energy is nonfunctional during the night time, storage devices such as batteries are required. These batteries can create a waste problem.  Furthermore, a significant amount of non-renewable energy is used in the construction of solar panels. Heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, gallium, mercury, and lead are used in the construction of photovoltaic cells, which can create toxic waste.(3) Developing well-organized waste disposal programs is essential to minimize this problem.   

Despite these challenges to solar technology, WE CARE Solar is filling in a gap in healthcare that would be otherwise void, and using technologies that are more renewable than conventional forms.

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Footnotes

(1)The Network. “Average Sunlight Hours.” The Network. Accessed June 11, 2010.

(2) Information for Action. “Energy: Solar Power.” Information for Action. Accessed on June 9, 2010.

(3) Ibid.