Desperate Times: The Role of Solar in Disaster Relief

Following the catastrophic April 2015 earthquake in Nepal, the international community banded together in an effort to provide disaster relief to those affected by the quake. Nations pledged millions of dollars in relief funds (India donated $1 billion) and the United Nations sent in its usual assortment of relief agencies to set up refugee camps and temporary shelters. But another aspect of the earthquake relief effort also stood out: the widespread presence of solar devices.

In times of crisis, the Nepal earthquake included, many areas may either lose or lack adequate access to electricity. To remedy this problem, more and more attention is being given to solar generators, which are mobile, cost-effective, and do not require fuel like conventional diesel generators. In Nepal, for example, SunFarmer, a non-profit dedicated to providing solar technologies to underdeveloped areas, is donating solar generators to over 100 Nepalese hospitals to provide desperately needed electricity to doctors and aid workers alike.

Source: Florida Solar Energy Center

Solar equipment has also been used after disasters closer to home. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, solar generators were donated to supply distribution stations in Mississippi, while the relief effort after Superstorm Sandy included widespread distribution of solar power supplies and solar lanterns on the eastern seaboard. In fact, the U.S. has a long history of using solar technology in the wake of natural disasters. The first recorded instance, according to a 2007 research paper, was in 1992 when relief camps in Florida distributed solar lanterns to the survivors of Hurricane Andrew. Solar technology is mobile, affordable, and versatile—ideal for aiding disaster relief by providing mobile power to aid workers or simply by giving light for visibility.

Beyond aiding the short-term relief process, solar technology also has the potential to make disasters less destructive in the long run. Distributed solar networks are more adaptable and less disruptable than conventional power networks. Widespread power outages after Superstorm Sandy led the Mid-Atlantic States to investigate the possibility of permanent solar power supplies for schools, hospitals, and other critical infrastructure. Solar power systems make the power grid more resilient in the long run. Because communities no longer depend on a single regional power source, the impact of accidents or system failures is significantly mitigated. While there is still progress to be made on the adoption of long-term solar devices, solar power’s benefit for disaster relief efforts brings to light the promise of localized, grid-independent electrical systems. To that end, many of the NGOs that donated equipment following Superstorm Sandy are planning to permanently relocate those systems to local facilities so that, should another disaster strike, communities will be able to weather the storm.

Still, challenges exist despite the clear benefits of solar technology for short-term aid efforts. Supplies must first be shipped to where they are needed, and transportation can be difficult in times of crisis. If supplies are not already prepared for delivery when a disaster occurs, delays and logistical challenges create problems for distributors and aid workers alike. According to professionals in the field, solar technology is most effective when distributors and companies wishing to donate or deploy aid communicate with local groups and NGOs beforehand. In short, solar devices are incredibly useful in aiding disaster relief efforts, but only through advanced planning can the full potential of these tools be harnessed.

Those interested in incorporating solar planning into public safety initiatives may find additional information and new ideas in the National Association of Regional Councils’ Solar for Safety, Security, and Resilience Toolkit. For more general information about regional councils’ work with solar power, please consult NARC’s Regional Solar Deployment Handbook