Christine Leclerc: SolarChill vaccine cooling technology leading way to sustainable future
Up to three billion people in the world live in regions without electricity. A significant challenge in these regions is to maintain the cold chain, or an uninterrupted series of storage and distribution activities to keep vaccines, food, and medicines cool and safe for use. Many regions without electricity use kerosene or propane vaccine coolers, which can be unreliable and result in vaccine spoilage, to the sum of millions of dollars in wasted vaccines. Vaccine cooling units which use batteries can also be unreliable, as lead batteries tend to break down in warm climates. Other regions simply go without immunization programs due to the absence of vaccine cooling capacity.
This November, the SolarChill Project was granted $2.7 million by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), an independent financial organization that provides funds to projects related to environmental concerns such as climate change in developing countries. This grant will enable Janos Maté and his international team to conduct demonstration and technology transfer programs in Kenya, Swaziland, and Colombia over the next three years.
Over the past 11 years Greenpeace International has led the SolarChill Project, a unique partnership between seven major international organizations. The project succeeded in the research and development of a breakthrough, climate-friendly, solar refrigeration technology. Since its inception the leader of the project has been Maté, a Vancouver-based Greenpeace associate.
Greenpeace’s involvement with the development of SolarChill evolved out of their 1990s success in revolutionizing the world’s domestic refrigeration sector through the development of an ozone layer and climate-friendly refrigeration technology called Greenfreeze. Greenfreeze uses hydrocarbons instead of fluorocarbons in a refrigerator’s insulation and refrigerant cycle. Today, there are over 550 million Greenfreeze refrigerators in the world. Nearly 40 percent of global domestic refrigeration production uses Greenfreeze technology, and it is estimated that by 2020 nearly 80 percent of global refrigerator production will have shifted to Greenfreeze. Greenfreeze has not been available to American and Canadian consumers until now, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has just approved the use of hydrocarbons as refrigerants. This is a major step to bringing the technology to North America.
The SolarChill vaccine cooler integrates recent solar innovations with Greenfreeze refrigeration technology: instead of storing the energy of the sun in conventional lead batteries, the sun’s energy is stored in an “ice battery”, or solar-made ice, which then cools the unit in a controlled fashion. The technology is used for keeping vaccines at the required temperatures as well as for cooling food.
Because SolarChill runs on solar energy, it eliminates the use of kerosene and propane and saves on greenhouse gas emissions. The world’s 100,000 kerosene-powered units emit about 80,000 tonnes of CO2 per year. SolarChill eliminates the need to constantly refuel the coolers with fossil fuels. This saves greenhouse gas emissions in itself. But over the lifetime of the cooling unit, an estimated $4,000 to $6,000 are saved in overall costs.
SolarChill vaccine coolers have been deployed around the world in 15 countries in South East Asia, Africa, and Latin America. They have also been used in refugee camps and in earthquake-hit zones in Haiti, and have the potential for off-the-grid applications in industrialized countries. The coolers are currently being produced in Denmark, Swaziland, U.K., and China.
SolarChill was exhibited by Greenpeace at the 17th Climate Convention in Durban, South Africa, earlier this month. Projects like SolarChill build confidence, explains Maté: “As the world grapples to reduce greenhouse house gas emissions and to move away from fossil fuels, practical examples like SolarChill demonstrate that we can indeed meet human needs using the renewable, clean energy of the sun.”
SolarChill demonstration units are also planned for Vancouver and Toronto in the new year. Maté says: “The cost of one SolarChill unit, including the solar panels is between $1,500 to $2,500. One vaccine cooler can service up to 30,000 children. For less than $1 billion, which is approximately what the United States spends on the war in Afghanistan each week, it would be possible to replace the world’s entire fleet of kerosene and propane vaccine coolers with SolarChill, as well as to provide SolarChill coolers to all regions of the world that currently lack immunization programs due to the absence of vaccine cooling capacity.”
SolarChill is a leading example of how innovation can reduce energy consumption and the climate impacts of refrigerants widely used in North America. Clean energy innovation is one of the forces that drives us away from climate change and toward the just and sustainable future we need. As Maté reminds us: “It’s just a matter of human priorities.”
Christine Leclerc is a communications officer with Greenpeace Canada.