Renewable energy and healthcare: IAPO at IRENA

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Kawaldip Sehmi, IAPO CEO,  attended the First International Conference on Renewable Energy for Healthcare (IRENA) in Singapore 2 November 2018 where a stimulating discussion took place around the availability of reliable, affordable and safe electricity supply that powers 90% of the health devices in use in the healthcare industry in diagnosis, treatment, communications and telemedicine. He shares the main takeaways with us.  


It is estimated that over one billion people use healthcare facilities that are without access to an adequate electricity supply. While most large hospitals have round-the-clock access to power, electrification rates drop dramatically for rural clinics. In the absence of reliable power, many of the basic life-saving interventions cannot be undertaken safely or at all. 

This impacts the provision of a sufficient quantity of accessible, safe, quality, reliable and affordable healthcare services with operating health devices. The global impact is that this will affect the delivery of sustainable development goals 2030, particularly that of delivering universal health coverage by 2030 to all people, of all ages and gender, and in all regions.

In this context, off-grid renewable energy solutions present a key opportunity to provide clean, reliable and cost-effective electricity to rural health centres, which can dramatically transform the quality of healthcare services provided to rural communities. In particular, the dramatic cost reductions and technological improvement of renewable energy technologies in the past decade makes renewables an economically and technically viable solution that can be rapidly deployed.

Several successful examples of renewable-based systems powering rural health clinics have already had a broad transformative impact on the quality of life of rural communities. However, a more widespread deployment of off-grid solutions for health centres is often hampered by institutional barriers and gaps of policy and financial nature.

Policy Interest 

Over 90% of the health devices now used in the healthcare industry in the diagnosis, treatment, communications and telemedicine operate on electricity. (WHO Technical Specifications for Medical Devices)

With an increasing number of smart phone health apps being produced for patients and with the transfer of healthcare from the hospital and health care facilities to the primary health care and near-patient (self-care) locations, there is a great need now to review how accessible these health services and devices are in light of availability of reliable, affordable and safe electricity supply. 

Within the Sustainable Development Goals 2030, the International Alliance of Patients Organizations has to reflect upon the achievement of Goal 3: Good health and well-being for people: "Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages” while ensuring that rest of the world meets Goal 7: Affordable and clean energy: "Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all"

Goal 7 has another health impact. Respiratory diseases, part of the Non Communicable Diseases Agenda, are exasperated by coal and fuel oil fired power stations. Generation of clean energy will reduce respiratory diseases.

SDG 3 and 7 must be looked at together.

Singapore Government and International Renewable Energy Agency

The 1st International Conference on Renewable Energy for Healthcare hosted by International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) was held on 2 November 2018 during the Singapore International Energy Week (SIEW). It was also complementary to the International Off-Grid Renewable Energy Conference and Exhibition (IOREC) held at the same venue as the SIEW. Both ventures were supported by the Singapore government.
SIEW is an annual platform for energy professionals, policymakers and commentators to discuss and share best practices and solutions within the global energy space.
The appetite for economic development and urban progress, coupled with climate change concerns and the development of more efficient energy technologies, is driving change among consumers and energy industries. 
SIEW aims to facilitate the exchange of ideas and discussions on pertinent energy-related issues, while simultaneously meeting the strategic objectives of Singapore’s commitment to becoming a global leader among energy companies converging on the event, as well as to provide a platform to showcase innovative products and solutions in the energy marketplace.
The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) is an intergovernmental organisation that supports countries in their transition to a sustainable energy future, and serves as the principal platform for international cooperation, a centre of excellence, and a repository of policy, technology, resource and financial knowledge on renewable energy. 
IRENA promotes the widespread adoption and sustainable use of all forms of renewable energy, including bioenergy, geothermal, hydropower, ocean, solar and wind energy in the pursuit of sustainable development, energy access, energy security and low-carbon economic growth and prosperity.
With a full mandate from countries around the world, IRENA encourages governments to adopt enabling policies for renewable energy investments, provides practical tools and policy advice to accelerate renewable energy deployment, and facilitates knowledge sharing and technology transfer to provide clean, sustainable energy for the world’s growing population.

Conference rational behind combining SDG 3 Health and SDG 7 Energy 

Universal health coverage (UHC) is target 3.8 of SDG 3. This cannot be achieved if there isn’t a reliable supply of electricity for rural and urban health centres to operate their health devices and provide an adequate and safe lighting, ventilation and sterilisation equipment. Power outages due to a shortage of electricity generation are common in many countries; in many hospitals this may occur during mid-surgery. This is a patient safety matter now.
Increasing the health coverage to cover more of the population cannot happen unless we have a complimentary increase in power generation to cover the increased use of the health devices and other equipment in the clinics.
The use of petrol and diesel generators is expensive. It comes with its own air pollution hazards.
Grid supplies will be very expensive. We have to build huge fossil fuel (gas and coal) burning turbines to generator the power.  We have to lay-out expensive transmission lines and pylons, with over 15% of power being lost during transmission. This will take time. 
Off-Grid renewable energy systems promise a lot. Locally owned and operated solar, wind and mini-hydro electricity generators are becoming very promising. Their power loss is low as the transmission lines travel a short distance.  Repairs can be quick as a local accessible team is available. Load-shedding can be organised efficiently within the community. Non-essential businesses do not use electricity during clinic or surgery days. 
This first conference on the issue wanted to set a place mat for patients, health professionals and renewable energy stake holders to sit together and work out a strategy for the future.
  • IAPO presented at the panel: Decentralised renewable energy in healthcare: The energy-health nexus
  • IAPO also contributed towards the debates: Facilitating financing and optimising delivery models for decentralised renewable energy for rural health centres

Take-home messages

  • Patients need access to a sufficient quantity of safe, quality and affordable health care devices and healthcare services. This is part of SDG 3 UHC. However, there needs to be a commensurate expansion of electricity supply to expand UHC. This needs to be in line with SDG 7: "Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all"
  • Patients, as users of health devices and health care services, can participate and advise power generation and grid system designers as to their use patterns and power needs. 
  • Patients can sometimes be electrical engineers and installers in their own rights. These ‘double expert patients’ are invaluable to both the power suppliers and the health care service providers.
  • Community owned off-grid systems can offer patients the opportunity to engage with and participate as trustees of these local off-grid trusts and also an opportunity to train-up to become maintenance electricians and meter revenue collectors.
  •  Patient Entrepreneurs like Amin Zayani, a solar energy engineer and hardware expert, are revolutionizing health devices market through patient-led and owned start-up companies like Med Angel. 
  • We must hold a SDG 3 and SDG7 Patient’s Conference or side-event at WHO World Health Assembly. IRENA and its supporters will welcome application for funding.

For more information on this, get in touch with Kawaldip using

Photo credit: Solar Energy Inertnational (SEI)