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December 10, 2015 | DG Solar and the Case of Nepal: Disaster Relief and Beyond

Imagine an earthquake has destroyed your house, leveled the homes of all your neighbors. The nearest clinic, which is not very near at all, has suffered structural damage, and landslides make the roads nearly impassible. Even more importantly, the clinic is without electricity and has no mechanism of back-up power.

For those in the direst need of immediate treatment — women giving birth, those with grievous injuries — there is no prospect of good help without light. Search and rescue, too, operated largely by friends and neighbors, must halt when the light fades. Without light, those who must be reached are not reached.

Here in the second week of negotiations at COP21 in Paris, the question of electricity access and climate-smart development in developing nations has emerged. The access problem becomes all the more urgent in disaster-prone areas, and the best solution may be distributed-generation (DG) solar.

This was the situation for many Nepalis living in the mountainous districts of Gorkha, Rasuwa, and Sindhupalchok after the April 25 magnitute 7.8 earthquake that killed a recorded 8,583 people nearly seven months ago.

I was living in the capital city of Kathmandu at the time of the earthquake. In the aftermath of the disaster, light took on new meaning for me.

Once the shaking subsided, the adrenaline-panic stew morphed into a broader dread about what would happen next. Electricity poles crisscrossed the streets like flicked-aside toothpicks. Power was a memory. As the city’s damaged hospitals expanded into parking lots for surgeries and search-and-rescue teams faced the prospect of nightfall, I saw firsthand the need for DG energy sources.

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The aftermath of the earthquake in Kathmandu

Where solar lanterns and panels brought in by the UNHCR and nonprofits like SunFarmer reached, the edge was taken off. In Kathmandu, some of the temporary camps in which thousands were living received solar-powered lamps, making it possible to see at night as aftershocks continued to roll through like trains underfoot. And the British Red Cross’s solar-powered blood bank, which opened only days before the earthquake, met critical demand from the injured in the weeks following the disaster. The importance of off-grid solar was clear.

Fast-forward seven months, and I find myself listening to a growing and heartening focus on the need for DG solar in disaster-response plans — and in the broader discussion of development.

One of the strongest proponents of DG solar is Dr. Laura Stachel, who founded WE CARE Solar with her husband after a 2008 trip to Nigerian state hospitals with high maternal mortality rates. WE CARE designs portable “solar suitcases” that equip off-grid clinics with solar power for surgical lighting, communications devices, and medical equipment in low-resource areas. So far they’ve provided over 1300 suitcases in 27 countries around the world, including 100 in Nepal following the April 2015 earthquake.

Stachel spoke with me at the UN Foundation's "Earth to Paris" on Monday, explaining that “solar can be a very appropriate solution” after natural disasters in areas where grids are absent and resources are low.

But the case of the Nepal earthquake reveals the more multifaceted importance of DG solar in developing nations. Nepal is currently facing a blockade on its southern border with India, which is cutting off access to vital medical supplies for over 3 million children and to the fuel that would power generators and medical equipment still being used to treat earthquake survivors. In cases like this when, as Stachel said, health workers “can’t get fuel at all,” the need for DG solar can be best explained by a perfect storm of forces including geography, disaster, infrastructure, politics, and climate change.

Indeed, it’s a mistake to ignore the role of climate change in exacerbating the effects of natural disasters. In the case of Nepal’s earthquake, changing monsoon patterns only worsen the living conditions of earthquake survivors, many of whom — months later — still live in temporary shelters or structurally compromised buildings that are often off-grid.

Electricity access in developing nations is never simple. To this many-headed quagmire in which Nepal currently finds itself entrenched, DG solar can be an immensely helpful solution.

And DG solar may only take off faster, if you buy what CEO of the UN Foundation Kathy Calvin told me: “Grids are a 20th century invention,” and they’ll be overlooked in favor of other alternatives as this century waxes. Instead of grids, “We’re going to have mini-grids, people off the grid, micro-grids,” she predicts.

The debate over whether DG or large-scale grids better empower people in developing countries wages on, but it’s clear that DG solar has its place in certain nations like Nepal, where it has made a world of difference.

As the negotiations at COP21 are finalized and 2016 opens to a new year of climate action, it is crucial to remember that development, climate change and energy are inextricably intertwined. We do ourselves a disservice if we try to pull them apart.

 

Caroline Saunders is one of Conergy's Future Solar Leaders. Caroline is a senior at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, studying Creative Writing and Environmental Studies.