Innovative Humanitarian Applications for Solar Energy

By: Kyle Warner


Climate change is causing the Earth to experience rapidly increasing temperatures with harmful side effects including sea level rise, ocean acidification, dried-up freshwater sources, and more frequent and severe weather events. These effects have left many communities around the world vulnerable, encouraging the development of renewable energy technologies to mitigate the negative impacts. Solar energy photovoltaics, which convert sunlight into electrical or thermal energy, are particularly useful in regions lacking electricity because they accomplish tasks that would otherwise require power from conventional utility lines. As the price of solar cells continues to drop and the demand for energy increases, new solar energy applications for humanitarian aid continue to be developed and implemented. The following discussion will bring to light three of the most innovative, humanitarian-driven solar technologies on the market today: vaccine refrigerators, computer labs, and desalination plants.

Solar Vaccine Refrigerators

In developing regions without access to electricity, traditional methods of refrigeration are not an option for storing vaccines. The inherent difficulty associated with refrigerated transport and storage in these areas has led to low vaccination coverage and, therefore, higher mortality rates due to an increased risk of disease. Fortunately, many companies have developed solar-powered vaccine refrigerators to address this issue. The most promising, advanced refrigerator model is the solar direct-drive (SDD) refrigerator, which is driven by photovoltaic solar panels that do not require expensive batteries. Rather than storing electrical energy in a conventional battery, the SDD refrigerator stores thermal energy in an ice bank. The thick linings of ice or cold water are frozen directly and can maintain the proper vaccine temperature, typically around 1.5˚C to 8˚C, for three to five days without sunlight. The ability to cut out the battery is a major benefit of SDD refrigeration because it significantly reduces capital cost and improves longevity; batteries are the cause of 90% of solar system failures. Additionally, some of the more advanced SDD models use temperature monitoring devices that rely on cellular networks to alert health officials when the temperature is no longer within the acceptable range. Although SDD technology has already made a significant impact, it is rapidly advancing through a global partnership of governments and NGOs, known as the Vaccine Alliance, that provides incentives for companies designing better and cheaper equipment geared towards expanding access to vaccines. The ability to run without a battery makes the SDD refrigerator a critical solar technology that should be commended for the many lives it has saved.

Solar Computer Lab

Computer Aid International is a non-profit that has designed a solar-powered computer lab called the ZubaBox. The Zubabox, which translates to “Sunbox” from the Zambian language Nyanja, is built in a recycled shipping container and contains refurbished DELL computers, low-power lights, a ventilation fan, and a power inverter, all powered by solar panels on the roof. It is designed to provide technical education and internet access to rural areas without electricity. Since 2010, twelve ZubaBoxes have been successfully installed in neighborhoods throughout Africa. These have proven to be multi-functional, making positive contributions in a variety of ways dependent on the needs of each community. For example, the Zubaboxes have allowed doctors to contact specialists in the city hospitals, local villagers to expand their businesses, and students to access educational material. One of Computer Aid International’s current goals is to install a ZubaBox in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, where there is a population of roughly 150,000 people who have fled from over twenty African nations. A Zubabox in Kakuma would have a meaningful and lasting impact as it would enable residents to locate lost loved ones through the internet. Computer Aid International is also currently working with an organization run by refugees within Kakuma to provide technological training and internet connectivity. The ZubaBox represents an innovative and philanthropic approach to solar energy, and should serve as a model for similar nonprofits utilizing renewables to supply electricity, education, or internet connectivity to regions in need.

Solar Desalination

Freshwater supplies are at a premium in many regions of the world, a situation exacerbated by climate change and increasing temperatures, which are drying up many previously accessible reservoirs. In response, several companies have developed solar-powered desalination techniques to provide support in areas with a lack of freshwater but that have access to salt water. Solar desalination refers to the process of removing salt from water via a unique device that uses solar energy to boil salt water and capture the resultant steam. The salt and other impurities are left behind, so the steam can then be cooled and condensed into freshwater. Less than 1% of the world’s desalination processes use renewable energy as their primary power source, but this is likely to change as large-scale renewable projects become more common. For example, in Saudi Arabia, a plant designed by the Spanish renewable energy company Abengoa will open in 2020 and produce 60,000 cubic meters of water per day for the arid northeastern city of Al Khafji. The use of solar energy photovoltaics in this facility will significantly reduce operating costs, as Saudi Arabia currently burns 1.5 million barrels of oil per day at its desalination plants, which supply 50 to 70% of the country’s freshwater. By 2030, the desalination demand in Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries is expected to reach 110 million cubic meters per day. Assuming the new solar desalination plant in Al Khafji is a success, this situation presents an excellent opportunity for further expansion and development of solar desalination technology. As climate change intensifies and the freshwater crisis amplifies, solar-powered desalination will be essential in achieving widespread access to freshwater without burning fossil fuels.


SDD refrigerators, the Zubabox, and solar desalination plants represent innovative humanitarian efforts that have improved access to medicine, electricity, education, internet connectivity, and freshwater through the use of solar energy photovoltaics. Altruistic renewable energy applications such as these suggest a promising future for an advancing global society that will be faced with many challenges related to climate and human welfare. If renewable technologies continue to be developed and distributed in regions of need, we can achieve widespread improvements in human well-being and environmental health.

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