Solar panels at a PIH clinic
Solar panels at a PIH clinic in Rwanda

Like all modern medical centers, the five rural health clinics in eastern Rwanda operated by Partners In Health need reliable power 24/7. But unlike other off-grid facilities, each of these centers is powered by a hefty 4.4-kilowatt solar photovoltaic system designed and installed by the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF). The solar systems have been up and running since February 2007.

The five clinics represent a number of “firsts.” For PIH the project was its first foray into Africa and its first use of solar power. Also, this is the first time SELF has extended the solar technology envelope to supply such large amounts of electricity to rural health centers. This PIH project is supported by the Rwandan Ministry of Health and the Clinton HIV/AIDS Initiative, among other donors and nongovernmental organizations.

At the five clinics—in Mulindi, Rusumo, Rukira, Nyarabuye, and Kirehe—solar power systems supply electricity for state-of-the-art laboratories, refrigeration, and computer recordkeeping and communication, including satellite dishes to transmit data. In the laboratories, solar electricity powers microscopes, blood analysis machines, centrifuges, portable X-ray machines, and sterilization devices. The systems also provides extensive lighting, as these are 24-hour facilities with patient wards.

Solar vs. Diesel

This PIH/SELF partnership might never have happened if SELF had not persuaded the PIH staff to question the time-honored proverb, never look a gift horse in the mouth.

PIH had planned initially to use diesel generators that had been donated by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. However, SELF staff assessed the Rwanda sites to determine the energy needed and the feasibility of solar power. Their analysis persuaded PIH that solar would be a better long-term solution to meet the electric power needs of its rural health centers. Solar does not emit carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases, and while upfront capital costs are higher, solar is ultimately less expensive over time, and more reliable and sustainable.

“The generators might be ‘free’, but diesel fuel costs would be a constant burden, assuming fuel is available,” explained SELF Executive Director Bob Freling. “Currently, in fact, there is a national shortage of diesel in Rwanda. Further, diesel is a petroleum-derived product, so even if obtainable, its cost will rise with the price of oil, which will always be unpredictable, subject to the whims of the market, availability of supply, and geopolitical constraints.”

 Installing a solar panel
Installing a solar panel at a PIH clinic in Rwanda

But solar power cannot be disrupted in this way. As long as the system is properly installed and maintained—and as long as the sun emits energy—solar is the most reliable source of power for rural communities not connected to a national utility grid.
The reliability argument won PIH over to solar. In a hospital setting, where procedures are conducted all the time, reliable power is paramount. SELF designed solar-hybrid systems that rely on solar to meet 90 percent or more of the clinics’ needs, with generators providing back-up power during prolonged periods of rain or extra-heavy electricity usage.

A key feature of SELF projects is that they must be locally sustainable. For the five clinics, SELF trained local staff to look after the solar systems. In addition, SELF has been working with the Rwandan Ministry of Health and the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology to develop a national training program for installing and maintaining solar electric systems.

The Power of Partnership

“This is a great example of the power of partnership,” Freling said. “Two nonprofit organizations with different but overlapping agendas—health care for the poor and sustainable energy for the developing world—came together; SELF provided a service that enables PIH to fulfill its mission in an economical, sustainable, nonpolluting, carbon-free way.”

SELF raised about 80 percent of the funds for the solar power project. Although this amount was a small fraction of the millions of dollars PIH and donors have invested in the Rwanda health centers, it was nonetheless critical.

 Installing a solar panel
Wiring the solar power system

“What more could we ask for?” asked Christian Allen, who works on PIH’s Electronic Medical Records system in Rwanda, another key component of the PIH model that depends on reliable electricity. “They asked us what we needed, went out and found the money to pay for it, and then came here to install it and teach our people how to use and maintain it.”

More broadly, SELF’s aim is to act as a catalyst to help PIH and other international organizations rethink their power strategy when they plan for community improvements in rural areas, from health care to education to economic development.

“Choosing solar electrification over diesel-powered generators represents a paradigm shift in the thinking of those in the international development sector,” Freling said. “SELF’s success with these projects will help create results-oriented, nonpolluting, sustainable solutions that are replicable on a large scale.”

[published August 2007]