Powering through COVID-19

by Joanita Nyangoma, Energy Lab Lead at The Innovation Village

With millions of people forced to stay at home due to the global pandemic, COVID-19, our reliance on electricity is more evident now than ever before. 

Mobile devices are essential for timely communication, computers are key to teleworking, televisions and radios are crucial for access to information, refrigeration is much needed to preserve food, and lighting is required especially for security. It is imperative therefore that electric power utilities ensure continued supply of safe, reliable and affordable electricity at all times.

Imagine facing this crisis without access to any of the aforementioned services. In Uganda, for instance, according to World Bank (Trading Economics, 2020), only an estimated 22% (~9.2 million people) have access to electricity leaving 78% (~32.8 million people) without any access to electricity, making them far more vulnerable to the disease and other dangers.

Unfortunately, there is also a segment of the 22% with access to electricity, who are facing financial challenges due to loss of their livelihoods and as such, can no longer afford to pay their electricity bills during this crisis. Worse still, due to the enforced lockdown, most households have seen their energy consumption skyrocket. For instance, before the lockdown, a family of four may have only used 1/3-1/4 of the energy. With it in place, that family will likely see the usage triple, even with a conservative consumption lifestyle. This could easily result in a state where households resort to the alternative biomass energy fuels, particularly charcoal and firewood for cooking, kerosene lamps/candles for basic lighting, which are perceived to be cheaper. However, these options are more dangerous as the people stand a risk of exposure to Household Air Pollution (HAP) from the burning of traditional biomass fuels, with women and children mostly affected. 

As such, this crisis presents an opportunity for energy consumers to identify alternative, simple and cost-effective energy solutions to address these pressing challenges. For instance, distributed renewable energy (DRE) solutions like stand-alone solar and mini-grid systems, represent a clean, cost-effective, rapidly deployable and reliable option to provide electricity to residential units and healthcare centers, transforming lives whilst strengthening global efforts to achieve UN Sustainable Development Goal 3 – good health and wellbeing and 7 – affordable and clean energy.

Households can look to utilizing ‘cleaner’ and more energy efficient cooking fuels like use of briquettes (easily made from cow dung or cassava flour or clay soil, smashed charcoal and water) that burn longer than charcoal and therefore, will reduce the amount of charcoal or firewood usage and save costs. Homes can also resort to utilizing improved clean cook stoves which are more energy efficient, emit less emissions and are safer than the traditional cookstoves or three-stone-fires to meet their cooking needs. 

Additionally, households can make a long-term, low-risk investment by purchasing standalone off grid solar home systems to cater to their domestic energy needs which can drastically reduce monthly utility bills.

 For households looking to smarter energy appliance consumption strategies, below are two tips (Vue, 2020):  

  • Intelligently avoid peak rate times: Inquire from the local power utilities customer service center about the peak rate times to adjust usage of any electrical appliances to the non-peak rate times. Rates can double during those peak rate times, so choosing the right time of day to use the heavy energy consuming appliances could impact your bill at the end of the month.
  • Boosting your appliances for optimal performance: Since you’re home, why not make sure your appliances and energy systems are running in excellent shape and being used only when absolutely needed? 
    • Any gadget with a motor is going to use up the most energy e.g. freezers, ACs – so you’ll want to optimize those energy drains as much as possible. 
    • Ensure the condenser coils under and behind your refrigerator are clean.  These coils disperse heat, but if they get blocked with dust, the fridge has to work harder to keep your food cold. 
    • Switch off all appliances at the power point when not in use.

For the healthcare sector, whilst a majority of large hospitals have round-the-clock access to power, electrification for rural health centers radically drops. In the absence of reliable power, many of the basic life-saving interventions cannot be undertaken safely or at all. Decentralized renewable energy and energy-efficient medical devices are therefore fundamental in creating stronger and more resilient healthcare systems in Africa and beyond. These off-grid renewable energy solutions present a key opportunity to provide clean, reliable and cost-effective uninterrupted electricity supply critical for 24/7 emergency services, safe child birth, and a robust cold chain for vaccines to rural health centers, which can vividly transform the quality of healthcare services provided to rural communities (Stachel & Kibiti, 2020). 

In particular, the evident cost savings and technological improvement of renewable energy technologies in the past decade make renewables an economically and technically viable solution that can be rapidly deployed.

References

Stachel, L., & Kibiti, B. (2020, 03 20). Coronavirus is not the only global health crisis. Just ask ½ billion people. Retrieved 04 03, 2020, from Power for all: https://www.powerforall.org/insights/energy-policy/coronavirus-not-only-global-health-crisis-just-ask-12-billion-people

Trading Economics, c. (2020, 04 04). Trading Economics. Retrieved 04 04, 2020, from Trading Economics: https://tradingeconomics.com/uganda/access-to-electricity-percent-of-population-wb-data.html

Vue, E. (2020, 03 27). West Haven Solar Blog. Retrieved 04 03, 2020, from West Haven Solar Blog: https://blog.westhavensolar.com/tips-to-save-energy-when-youre-stuck-at-home

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