Solar Power Key To Chill Haiti Vaccine Program

Solar power is about more than moving the world away from fossil fuels in order to avoid global warming catastrophe. In poor, rural areas of the world, people are turning to solar power to make a more direct, immediate impact.

Take what’s happening in Haiti. There, UNICEF says, 153 solar-powered refrigerators are being used to protect heat-sensitive vaccines – like the one for polio, for instance.

image via UNICEF

image via UNICEF

“The solar refrigerator is very important, because it means the vaccines are always available,” aid worker Suzette Beliard told UNICEF. “(W)e always have vaccines available for children.”

Beliard works in an area that has no electricity. Propane-powered refrigerators were tried, but apparently turned out to be an imperfect solution. “The old refrigerators used gas, and sometimes the vaccines would go bad because we ran out of gas,” Beliard said.

The UNICEF story was quite upbeat about the solar refrigerators, but a February conference presentation by Dr. Jeannot Francois, who runs the Expanded Programme on Immunization for the Haiti Ministry of Public Health, suggested the picture is a bit more complex.

According to a Google translation, Francois detailed problems with thermostat calibration, fuses and blowers, as well as with the installation of the solar panels that feed energy to the refrigerators (he also noted that theft of the panels had at times been a problem). As a result, more half of the refrigerators failed to maintain the required temperature, necessitating the continued use of gas refrigerators in many instances, Francois said.

But Francois also noted that propane is expensive and logistically challenging, and that “we believe that solar is the energy of the future” as health officials and manufacturers repair and upgrade the installations and improve future refrigerators.

One issue that seems to be settled is that battery-less refrigerators (which are being used in Haiti) are the way to go. These are well-insulated boxes that can go several days without power. Last year, the Solar Electric Light Fund won a grant from the Gates Foundation to field test solar-powered, battery-free vaccine icepack freezers in Colombia. SELF said at the time that most failures of solar refrigerators come from battery issues.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

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