Will solar panels solve Gaza’s chronic power deficit imposed by Israel’s blockade?

Two hospitals in Gaza, al-Shifa and Nasser, already use solar energy to run their intensive care units [Getty]

Two hospitals in Gaza, al-Shifa and Nasser, already use solar energy to run their intensive care units [Getty]

Published in Al Jazeera, 07 Jan 2016

Gaza – Three years ago, a teenage boy plummeted three storeys to the ground in the pitch dark after accidentally stepping out of the side of his Gaza home, which was missing a wall due to Israeli shelling.

Taken to the emergency room at al-Shifa hospital, he was handed over to Ben Thomson, a volunteer doctor from Canada.

Thomson began inserting a chest tube to drain the air and blood that had accumulated outside of the boy’s lungs – a procedure that usually takes only a few minutes to complete. With the power out, however, Thomson struggled to operate.

“I couldn’t see. I was trying to put this [chest tube] in, in the dark. What would have normally taken me five minutes or less, took me about 25 to 30 minutes, and the boy died … because of something that was easily preventable,” Thomson told Al Jazeera.

“That could have been fixed. He could have survived, had I been able to see what I was doing. People are dying in Gaza quite often, regularly, every single day because of the lack of electricity.”

In Gaza, the availability of light in an emergency room often determines whether a patient lives or dies. The besieged Palestinian territory has been suffering from a chronic power deficit for years amid Israel’s blockade – a situation that worsened after the 2014 Israeli assault, which destroyed Gaza’s power plant. Even before the war, Israeli-supplied electricity to Gaza met less than half of the territory’s estimated needs.

Outages can last for more than 16 hours a day. When it is available, power comes in sporadic, five to eight-hour intervals.

“The solution to this seemed very obvious,” Thomson said. “The solution was [that] we need to have a sustainable, consistent, reliable source of energy that can be stored and used.”

Fortunately, Gaza is one of the richest countries worldwide in such a resource: sunlight. Gaza has an average of 320 days of sunshine a year, making solar energy an attractive alternative power source.

Recognising this, Thomson teamed up with several Canadian doctors last summer to launch Empower Gaza, a project that aims to install solar panels in major hospitals throughout the territory.

Organisers raised more than $215,000 on Indiegogo, enough to fund the installation of solar panels at al-Aqsa hospital. Islamic Relief Canada donated another $1.5m, which will help fund six major hospitals in total, including al-Aqsa.

Construction of solar panels at al-Aqsa hospital will start this month, and by June 2017 the panels should be installed in four hospitals.

They will provide a reliable source of energy for emergency rooms, intensive care units and operating rooms 24 hours a day. Currently, diesel generators are the primary power source for hospitals.

Two hospitals in Gaza, al-Shifa and Nasser, already use solar energy to run their intensive care units. Since Shifa installed solar panels in the autumn of 2014 with Japanese assistance, there have been no power interruptions in intensive care, a unit which houses 14 beds linked to monitors, ventilators and lab equipment.

“We have [protected patients] from the electricity problems occurring in the rest of the hospital, due to shortages of fuel and dependency on generators that consume fuel equal to $10,000 daily,” Medhat Abbas, the director of Shifa hospital, told Al Jazeera.

The United Nations Development Programme is supporting the Empower Gaza project by transporting batteries and panels into Gaza from Israel.

The UNDP has also installed solar panels in schools, healthcare clinics and water facilities in support of the Palestinian Solar Initiative, which aims to meet 30 per cent of energy demands in the coastal enclave with renewable sources by 2020.

Private use of solar power is also catching on. One solar power unit worth $1,500 can supply a family home with electricity to power fridges, heaters, lamps, water pumps and other appliances. Even so, many families cannot afford this, and instead resort to warming their homes by burning wood and coal.

“Some leave the fire on when they go to sleep. Last winter, we had at least three or four incidents where the fire spread in the home because the family left it while they were sleeping … It was a real tragedy,” said 29-year-old Gaza resident Nader Abd el-Naby.

Amid Israel’s blockade, firewood and gas are scarce, while liquid fuel is expensive and not easily available.

“These days, people are suffering from a lack in cooking gas. Every one of us wakes up and goes to bed thinking of how to get a filled canister,” said Mosab Mostafa, 23, an unemployed graduate in Gaza.

Private businesses in Gaza cite electricity shortages as one of the key obstacles to investment and growth as reported in a study by the World Bank. Gaza’s unemployment rate, at 43 per cent, is the highest in the world.

Back at Shifa, Thomson recalls an incident when all the respirators were shut off in the intensive care unit. A young man, Ahmed, had his mother by his side, and she learned to squeeze the oxygen bag in and out until the electricity came back on, allowing her son to continue breathing. Other patients died that day.

“Ahmed was only alive because his mother was by his bedside the entire time,” Thomson said. “Empower Gaza was inspired by local Palestinian healthcare workers and engineers … This is by Palestinians, for the Palestinians.”

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