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 Internationalis 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.
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.
By Anna Christou
With 50 confirmed cases of measles, Washington is in a state of emergency, and the disease has spread to other states as well: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, and Texas have each reportedat least one case of measles this year.Measles is an extremely contagious, airborne disease caused by a virus that spreads from person to person through coughing and sneezing. The Mayo Clinicstates that measles is usually characterized by a fever, sore throat, and a skin rash; within days, it can escalate to severe complications, such as pneumonia and encephalitis, which is the swelling of the brain. Measles can be prevented through the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, which is generally given in two doses—the first at around 12 months old and the second between 4 and 6 years old—and is 97% effective. Implementing the MMR vaccination program in 1963 led to a 99% reduction in the number of measles cases in the United States. Measles cases continued to decline thereafter, however, starting in 2017, the rate of measles began to increase for the first time since the advent of the vaccination, in large part due to the anti-vaccination movement. In particular, anti-vaccination is linked to this year’s outbreak.
According to theWorld Health Organization, vaccination, in general, prevents 2 to 3 million deaths every year and has the potential to prevent millions more if vaccination becomes more widespread. Vaccines prepare the body to fight a pathogen by activating the immune system. The immune system, which is in charge of protecting the body from infection, recognizes unhealthy cells that have entered the body and activates a response. Specifically, it releases a variety of white blood cells, including T cells and B cells, which travel to the site of the foreign invader. Both T and B cells develop a way to “remember” the invader in order to more efficiently fight the infection if the body is re-exposed. In addition, B cells secrete antibodies, which are proteins produced by blood cells that neutralize pathogens by latching onto them and thus effectively removing them from the body. On the other hand, T cells also directly kill microbes. Vaccines expose a person to a small amount of the virus—this activates the immune response and teaches the body, particularly the T and B cells, to develop a memory for a pathogen. That way, if a person is re-exposed to the virus, the T and B cells will more efficiently and effectively mount an immune response that protects the body.
However, many people with access and the ability to receive vaccines are reluctant to get vaccinated for a variety of reasons, including thinking that vaccines are unsafe and linked to autism; that acquiring immunity naturally is more effective; and that they will be protected by herd immunity.
The modern-day anti-vaccination movement began in 1998, when Andrew Wakefield, an English doctor, published a paper asserting that there was a link between the MMR vaccine and autism, spurring fear in many and receiving a significant amount of media attention. However, this theory has been completely disproven: the data has been proved to be unreliable and false, and numerous other studies have been conducted and have shown that there is no relationship between vaccines and autism. In particular, medical recordshave shown that the children did not show symptoms of autism, or if they did, this was not due to receiving vaccines, as they had already shown signs of autism before the study.
Another common concern is that the vaccine will overwhelm the immune system or even lead to the person contracting that disease. In reality, despite being exposed to the virus, one cannot get sick from the vaccine, because only a dead or a weakened version of the virus is injected into the body. Some people might experience a minor reaction to vaccines, such as a fever or rash, but this is not a reaction to an active virus but just the presence of a foreign pathogen.
In addition, some people have personal beliefs that building immunity naturally is more effective than receiving a vaccine. They think that if they contract the disease and survive, then they will be protected in the future. However, the problem with this philosophy is that in order to build immunity naturally, one has to contract the disease, which as described above, has very severe symptoms and complications and can pose a risk to others, as well.
Finally, many people think that they will be protected if everyone else is vaccinated, misinterpreting the concept of herd immunity, which is the idea that an entire community is protected from a disease if immunity rates are sufficiently high. Specifically, as diseases spread amongst people in a community, if enough people are vaccinated, then the diseases will be less likely to spread. This, in theory, protects people who are not vaccinated. However, herd immunity only works when immunity rates are very high--close to 95%.That way, only the small unvaccinated cohort of the population, namely the immunocompromised patients who cannot be vaccinated or newborns who are not old enough to receive the vaccine, will be protected. However, if people with healthy immune systems and no allergies to vaccines decide to not become vaccinated and less than 95% of the population is immune, then those who are unvaccinated have a higher risk of contracting the disease. But, if everyone who is able to get vaccinated does so, then not only will the immunocompromised be protected but those who have been vaccinated will also be even safer, as the overall spread of the disease—and risk of contracting it— will be low.
As a result, especially given the link between anti-vaccination and the recent measles outbreak, it is very important to refute the anti-vaccination movement and spread of misinformation. Healthcare officials have started to draw attention to this issue: for example, the World Health Organization listedvaccine hesitancy as one of the top ten threats to global health in 2019. Realizing that vaccines do not make people sick, do not cause autism, and are far more effective and safe than trying to develop immunity naturally, is a step towards ensuring that people who can get vaccinated, do get vaccinated.