Sustainable energy supply: the case of health facilities in Ghana

By Jonas Bauhof

Access to electricity is still a major problem

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), 770 million people lacked access to electricity in 2019 – set aside sustainable energy sources. Three-quarters of these people – around 575 million – are living in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). While the numbers declined over the past decade, the Covid-19 pandemic has reversed the trend. SSA has been hit hard economically and for the first time since 2013, the number of people with access to electricity is predicted to have decreased in 2020.

The consequences of this lack of access are far-reaching for people’s livelihoods – impacting their health, among others. While data on electricity access for health facilities in SSA is sparse, a study from 2013 in eleven Sub-Saharan countries revealed that only 28% of health facilities and 34% of hospitals had reliable access. Today, UN Development predicts that 25% of health facilities are still without access to electricity while 28% face regular power outages. No electricity often means no lights during the night, no possibility to sanitize instruments, as well as missing cooling circles for vaccines and medications, all of which are vital in the fight against Covid-19.

In the long term, strengthening national grids must be a priority. Yet, mini-grids or off-grid systems offer a faster and cheaper application in many cases. They are essential in the fight against the pandemic but foremost an integral component to fulfil SDG 3 and SDG 7.

Are off-grid systems potential game changers?

Today, many calls and initiatives foster the sustainable electrification of communities and health facilities. Off-grid solutions – offered by a range of actors from small local start-ups to major international donor organisations – are increasingly used to meet the demand in rural areas. While many programs and initiatives are doing great work in providing off-grid solutions, the EnerSHelF (Energy Supply for Healthcare Facilities in Ghana) project aims to enhance the applicability and efficiency of such systems.

EADI has been the transfer and dissemination partner of EnerSHelF – since 2019. The project’s goal is to foster SDG 3 on good health and well-being as well as SDG 7 on access to affordable and clean energy. By optimizing photovoltaic (PV) hybrid systems, the EnerSHelF’s team aims to show that renewable energy can not only contribute to strengthening the Ghanaian national energy system, but do so in a sustainable, cost-effective way.

On the project’s website, regular updates on the progress and working process of EnerSHelF are shared. You can find interviews with different working groups on issues such as the installation of automatic weather stations, visualization of spatial data, or how to set up a PV-hybrid system in rural Ghana. The affiliated Twitter channel grants further insights into the work of the project.

Under the umbrella of the “CLIENT II – International Partnerships for Sustainable Innovations” funding initiative, EnerSHelF combines expertise from academia and industry, bringing together experts of nine different partners from the industry as well as technical disciplines and social sciences. This close collaboration between neighbouring disciplines is needed to reach both the project’s goal and the targeted SDGs. The SDGs themselves represent a holistic approach to most fundamental human needs and rights. Accordingly, the project’s interdisciplinary approach seems not only fitting but essential.

Successfully setting-up a mini-grid or off-grid system cannot be achieved by simple plug-and-play. To ensure its effectiveness, efficiency and long-term sustainability, multiple factors must be considered. These factors can be of technical, political but also socio-economic nature. In the context of EnerSHelF, we need to understand the interlinkages to develop the optimal system for each setting.

On the technical side, meteorological variables are combined with information on the electricity consumption of health facilities, load capacity, and the existing capacity of the grid or other forms of electricity supply. The aim is to understand the available solar resources and the demand for electricity. This data is used to model the system size for each facility, adapting it to local factors. Read an interview with Prof. Stefanie Meilinger, one of the project leaders, to further understand how internal and external factors influence PV solar solutions.

On the socio-economic side, it is necessary to understand factors that influence the transition towards a sustainable energy system in Ghana. What is the political environment? Who are relevant stakeholders in the field? What are the challenges faced by health facility managers regarding energy supply? And what are their perceptions of renewable energy and off-grid power solutions? These and many other data are collected through interviews in regions all over Ghana. You can watch two video interviews with our researchers working on that topic. One with Callistus Agbaam on the political economy aspects and one with Ana Maria Perez on the interviews with health facility managers.

While the different work packages are collecting data independently, they come together in regular meetings to present the current progress and findings to other work packages. These monthly seminars bridge the gap between disciplines, helping the project to generate a holistic understanding surrounding solar energy in Ghana, particularly regarding the health sector. The constant exchange creates synergies which are helpful to reach the project goal and an important contribution to SDG 3 and SDG 7.

Local engagement is key for long-term success

The sustainability of the project’s outcome is determined by its design. Including local stakeholders increases the likelihood that the findings are used past the expiration date of the project’s funding in 2022. By training health facility managers to operate the installed systems, it can have a lasting positive effect on the electricity supply of the clinics – ideally inspiring other health facilities to follow suit. This is why the EnerSHelF project is making all models and data publicly available for future research and projects.

While the project was initiated before the pandemic, its research is of even higher value today. Just as the pandemic can only be fought collectively, the SDGs can only be reached with the efforts of many. In both cases, the close collaboration of disciplines, industries, and local stakeholders proves to be crucial.

Jonas Bauhof is EnerSHelF Project Assistant at EADI