Day after disaster

 By Nicholas Newman

Every year there are earthquakes, natural disasters or accidents all over the world. Whatever the cause, there is usually a need for emergency power. Traditionally aid agencies have used portable standby diesel or petrol generators. However, due to advances in alternative technologies new solutions are being provided. In Japan, for example, fuel cells are being used to supply emergency power to hospitals; in remote refugee camps portable solar cells are providing power for lighting. Whilst mountain rescue teams are using light sticks to guide their way. Nicholas Newman looks at some of the technologies being used to make the task of emergency services and aid agencies easier in doing their job…

(Cover photo “Nepal heartquake” by

Every year, somewhere around the world, there are earthquakes, landslides, floods, hurricanes, wildfires or even severe snow blizzards, which leave households, hospitals and businesses without power. Rich and poor nations alike are not immune from disruptive effects, ranging from the “snowmageddon” that hit the east coast of America in January 2016 to the earthquake in Nepal or Australia’s floods last year. Whatever the event, there is usually a demand for emergency power to facilitate rescue, recovery and repair.

Traditionally, rescue workers and aid agencies have used expensive portable standby diesel or petrol generators. However, due to advances in technologies, alternative energy solutions are becoming more readily available. In Japan, for example, fuel cells are supplying emergency power to homes and hospitals; in Indonesia portable solar lamps provide light, and mountain rescue teams now use “light sticks.”

It is striking that, despite recent significant innovations in alternative sources of energy, the traditional expensive portable energy solutions such as petrol and diesel generators still dominate. The reasons, as Justin Hartree, Equipment Quality Officer, Oxfam Supply Centre, explains are “because in many cases, NGOs have not considered the use of clean energy technologies during the planning process, and as a result, they are not warehoused and ready to go when emergencies happen.” He adds, “Oxfam has a tradition of employing local electricians. As a result, it does not have the expertise and experience to appreciate the benefits of clean technology. You could say, in many emergencies, there is a cleantech energy void.”

The importance of a power generator...

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Today, two factors combine to hinder widespread uptake of cleantech energy even by large international aid agencies: a culture of insufficient technical awareness, know-how and experience, as well as cost. “For instance, much of the new cleantech energy solutions coming on the market was designed for military budgets in mind,” says Hartree. However, efforts are currently underway to bring down costs of these versatile portable solar powered devices to within the budget of international NGOs.

In Kenya, for instance, Oxfam with the help of Britain’s Department for International Development, is using Firefly Clean Energy Cygnus™ 5.0k VA Hybrid Power Generators, connected to two Solar Fold-Arrays to provide power, which is distributed via micro-grids during disaster relief operations. “Such technology was originally developed for the British military,” states Hartree. This clean power technology provides refugees, aid workers and displaced communities with clean, silent power for lighting, phone charging, radios and computers, without relying on external suppliers — it also eliminates noise and exhaust fumes.

In Japan, a country known for regular natural disasters, such as earthquakes and high tidal waves, the government is subsidizing the installation of disaster preparedness measures such as high capacity home storage battery systems produced by companies such as Panasonic, Kyocera, NEC and Toshiba. A case in point, is the Toshiba eneGoon lithium-ion battery, a home storage battery system with a capacity of 6.6 kWh and a maximum power output of 3.0 kVA during normal use. It can be rapidly charged in about two hours, from either the grid or solar panels. This storage system can power the lights, refrigerator, PC and TV for up to 12 hours at a time, and is instantaneously switched on by sudden power outages. In addition, the batteries reduce power consumption and emissions during peak demand by providing electricity that was stored during the night.

Major heartquakes since 1900

A reliable telecoms network is a necessity for the operations of the emergency services in any disaster or during widespread outages. Severe weather conditions such as gales and hurricanes can disconnect rural telecom towers from the grid network. In hurricane prone areas of the US, it can take up to 72 hours for such towers to be reconnected to the grid — a lengthy void — which has forced US telecom operators to adopt backup power, often in the form of fuel cells, attached to their generators in order to maintain their services. The distinct advantage of such established fuel cell technology is its widespread availability and longevity, since the cells have a lifespan of at least 10 years before they need replacing.

Across the Atlantic, in the UK, search and rescue teams use clean technology in a number of ways. In northern England, Coniston Mountain Rescue is using solar panels to power its base camp and solar powered devices to support the teams in their work of search and rescue in the very mountainous and remote districts of the Cumbria National Park. Out in the field, emergency response teams employ chemical lights or glow sticks for light to guide operations both above and below ground during disasters. Other forms of clean energy technology include hand and solar powered radios, flashlights, mobile phones, phone chargers and lights, such as the Eton American Red Cross Hand-Crank Radio and LuminAID Inflatable Solar Powered Light for use by both fieldworkers and civil authorities.

In the days following the Nepal earthquake, solar power proved invaluable in providing both emergency lighting and clean water for displaced residents. Indeed, the United Nations High Commission for refugees, distributed over 8,000 solar lanterns to the Kathmandu Valley region, while at the same time, American NGO SunFarmer, provided solar power technology to power clean water purification systems.

What is clear is that before clean technology powered devices are commonly used in civil emergency situations, manufacturers, emergency personnel and NGOs must complete a steep learning curve about what is on offer from a range of commercialized military innovations.

about the author
Nicholas Newman
Freelance energy journalist and copywriter who regularly writes for AFRELEC, Economist, Energy World, EER, Petroleum Review, PGJ, E&P, Oil Review Africa, Oil Review Middle East. Shale Gas Guide.