Solar Lights a Healthy – and Empowering – Path in Disasters

Washington – When disaster strikes, survivors have a few basic needs: food, water, shelter, blankets. But energy quickly becomes just as fundamental a need – and that is often lacking, or very dirty.

Breakthroughs in low-cost, solar lighting and mobile charging can improve the quality of disaster relief and refugee life around the world as never before, aid and development experts say. Rapidly falling prices and improved efficiency of three key technologies – solar photovoltaic cells, batteries, and LEDs (light emitting diodes) – have put renewable energy solutions within reach to improve health and welfare for millions of people.

“There has been an unprecedented scaling of access to energy for the under-served,” said Russell Sturm, head of the energy access advisory for the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC).

Portable Solar

Over the past two years, he said IFC has seen some 150 percent annual growth in purchase of small-scale, mostly portable solar lamp products through Lighting Global, its program to spread clean and safe lighting to the 1.5 billion people in the world who live off the electric grid. About 7 million Lighting Global-certified solar lights and charging units have been sold in Africa, and probably an equal amount in Asia, Sturm said.

Some portable, water-resistant solar-powered LED lanterns are being sold in bulk for as little as $6 to $7 each, with eight hours of battery life, two-year warranties, and illumination 10 times brighter than a kerosene lamp. “The brightness has to be seen to be believed,” said Leo Blyth, client services coordinator for Lighting Global, who demonstrated the technology for aid group leaders at a forum at the nonprofit United Nations Foundation earlier this month.

The technology could mean better environmental health for millions. Kerosene and firewood have been the go-to sources of lighting for years in refugee camps and relief sites in Africa and Asia – at great risk to health. Smoky, inefficient, and not portable, they’re also dangerous.

“A huge risk in tent settings is fire and pediatric burns,” said Richenda Van Leeuwen, executive director of energy access for the UN Foundation. Young children have also been sickened from drinking kerosene, sometimes sold in what looks like soda bottles.

Environmental Health Threat

As for firewood, the landmark Global Burden of Disease study published in 2012 in the Lancet confirmed that the greatest environmental health threat in the world is respiratory illness due to burning of wood, brush, dung, and other biomass for fuel. The 3.5 million annual deaths attributed to wood smoke are more than double the fatalities from either malaria (1.2 million) or HIV/AIDS (1.5 million).

Lack of safe, clean lighting even increases the risk of sexual assault for women, both because they are vulnerable in dark camps. The role that solar lights can play in addressing this issue became clear after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti that killed some 220,000 people and left 1.5 million homeless – one of the first disasters where aid workers were able to attempt large-scale distribution of solar systems.

“One of the things we saw in Haiti was that particularly for women and girls, having access to quality, sustainable lighting has been key to reducing gender-based violence in the aftermath of the earthquake,” said Van Leeuwen.

More than 80,000 displaced by the earthquake in Haiti still live in temporary camps, five years after the magnitude 7.0 temblor, according to Amnesty International.

No Harmful Fumes

Most of the new solar lighting systems are designed to be portable, so they can be taken at night to toilet facilities. But the lights also can be hung or placed on stands to illuminate an area for children to read and study. Solar energy gives them a chance to do so without breathing harmful fumes.

“Years ago, we really didn’t look so closely at how to tailor solutions to energy needs in emergency humanitarian settings,” Van Leeuwen said. “With the advent of small-scale solar lighting, there are now many more solutions available for these settings.” Now, aid workers recognize that one of the key steps of helping people in crisis is clean and safe energy.

Amare Gebre Egziabher, a senior environmental coordinator for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said the agency would like to see solar lanterns replace kerosene lamps, firewood and other problematic lighting choices.

His program has distributed thousands of solar lighting products in refugee camps in Syria, Gaza, and Rwanda, and elsewhere.

Corporate sponsors have stepped forward to help. Ikea, which through its Brighter Lives for Refugees campaign, is donating about $1.20 (1 euro) for solar lighting from every LED bulb it sells through March to UNHCR’s program. Panasonic and Pepsi also have sponsored campaigns to bring solar lights to refugees.

But Egziabher said funding remains a problem, given the number of people in need. The UN’s latest figures show that last year there were 16.7 million refugees around the world and 33.3 million people displaced within their own countries. Syria’s crisis, entering its fourth year in March, has displaced 6.8 million people.

Higher Quality

Making sure that displaced survivors get solar lights that shine, batteries that last, and equipment that doesn’t fry in the extremes of tropics or deserts has often been a problem – especially in fast-moving emergencies.

Comparing the new high-quality solar lights to some of the other choices on the market, Blyth said, is “like one of those movies where you see the humans next to the dinosaurs.

“Out there, you have the dinosaur products – they’re using factory technology that may be 10 to 20 years old,” he said. “They’re there, they’re cheap, and they’re poor quality.”

In many poor rural communities, people have come to believe, erroneously, that heavy batteries are more durable. But the opposite is now the case; the most advanced batteries are lightweight. “You probably had hundreds of thousands of these [old, heavy batteries] die in transit, sitting in refugee camps in your tent or storage point,” said Blyth.

That’s why one of Lighting Global’s key efforts is a product testing and quality assurance program that so far has certified 49 different solar lighting and charging systems as part of its mission to support growth of clean off-grid lighting in the developing world. Its quality assurance ratings have provided guidance to governments and aid groups.

“We don’t want containers full of junk coming into the market,” said Sturm.

Bottlenecks and Short Notice

It has been a challenge both to spread information about high-quality, affordable solar lighting and charging technology to humanitarian aid groups, and to make sure that manufacturers have capacity to deliver clean energy solutions in a crisis.

“In many cases, large quantities need to be bought on short notice,” said Arne Jacobson, Lighting Global’s head of quality assurance. “Meanwhile, solar off-grid is an emerging industry, and many companies have small or medium-scale production capacity. That can cause bottlenecks.”

Stephanie Cox, who has worked 15 years in international development, said that after Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in 2013, many small humanitarian groups found it difficult to make bulk purchasing decisions on solar lighting.

“They ended up doing long Google searches and just ordering from the first hit, without knowing much about the product, or the company,” or its ability to deliver the products ordered, she said.

Cox is founder of The Level Market, a business-to-business online platform launching later this year to attempt to connect buyers and sellers of humanitarian aid products.

$150 per Kilowatt-Hour

Quality and manufacturing capacity issues may be nitty-gritty issues, but they’re important, say solar lighting advocates, because of the risk that the renewable energy solution will get a bad reputation before it even begins to reach its full potential in reaching those who need it most.

Ironically, the world’s poor end up being gouged because of dependence on fossil fuel and inefficient wood energy – especially in emergency situations. Between the cost of kerosene and the prices at cell-phone charging stations, studies have shown the cost of power for people without grid electricity is the equivalent of $150 per kilowatt-hour, Sturm said. That’s 1,250 times what the average U.S. resident pays for home electricity, 12 cents per kilowatt-hour.

Solar energy offers hope that people in crisis can spend scarce resources on putting their lives back together, instead of wasting money on fuel.