Solar Powered Electronic Health Record (EHR) Systems - The Time is Now

Washington D.C. 02 October 2005 In the last thirty five years the message has been clear, but ignored. The world is being held over a barrel - an oil barrel - when it comes to energy. It's time to diversify our sources of energy with a very strong focus on the earth's most abundant energy source - the Sun! The public and private sectors need to take the initiative to lead the way into our diversified energy future where the center piece of our world's long range strategy ought to be conservation and increased usage of solar power across all sectors of the economy. Your health care organization's vision should include having more and more of your IT infrastructure, Web sites and computers powered by a "hybrid" energy system that taps into solar, wind, and traditional electrical energy sources. In the health care industry there are compelling reasons to acquire and implement hybrid energy systems that include solar power. These include providing continuity of care during major natural and man-made disasters and providing power for health IT systems that can access medical knowledge and clinical patient data in remote locations where traditional electrical services cannot be reliably provided to support these systems. This article will explore developments in the solar energy field and highlight implications and opportunities for the next generation of health facilities and medical informatics computer systems.

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Introduction

In early 2000, a preliminary analysis of solar powered computer systems surfaced very few examples or references related to this subject. However, the times have changed. More efficient solar energy systems are now being produced at lower costs which are becoming attractive alternatives as the price of oil climbs ever higher. The number of examples where Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) solar energy components are being used to power computer systems has increased dramatically, including installations by health care facilities in various locations around the world.

This article provides executives with an update on progress related to solar powered facilities and computer systems. In particular, new COTS solar energy products will be highlighted along with examples of information technology (IT) systems that are powered by them in different business settings.

Solar Powered Health Facilities and Clinical Computer Systems

Today's solar energy solutions are often configured as hybrid systems that utilize solar panels and small wind powered generators that plug into the existing traditional electrical systems already installed in most buildings. The following examples focus primarily on the current status of solar power solutions as they have been deployed in health care settings around the world.

Health IT Systems

At Napier University's Merchiston campus in Scotland solar panels are being installed that will generate enough electricity to power up to 80 of the 500 computers at the state-of-the-art Jack Kilby Centre. They will cover an area of 160 square meters on the side of the building and a display board will show how much energy is being produced. The project includes the establishment of a solar panel laboratory to carry out research into their effectiveness and work to improve their efficiency. All the power generated will be consumed internally but on the few days that the 24-hours-a-day Jack Kilby Centre is closed, Napier will sell the electricity so it can be channeled into the UK national grid. The project is backed by the Energy Saving Trust. The Government has set a target of producing ten percent of electricity through renewable energy sources by 2010. (April 2005) - http://edinburghnews.scotsman.com/edinburgh.cfm?id=363002005

Solar Energy Project Enhances CDC Health Care Facility in Kenya - The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Health Initiative facility in Homa Bay, Kenya, benefits from a solar energy power system that delivers reliable power and reduce losses of vital medicine and laboratory test samples. The facility houses an on-site laboratory that supports a project to reduce diarrheal diseases using a simple household-based method to improve water quality.

USAID & Kakuuto Hospital in Uganda - In a USAID news release it was reported that youth volunteers from the United States traveled to rural areas of East Africa to work with "Solar Light for Africa", a faith-based non-governmental organization, in providing power to clinics, orphanages, schools and churches. With USAID assistance, the organization electrified the Kakuuto Hospital in Uganda's Rakai District using solar energy, which has improved the health of patients and enabled staff to treat them more effectively. This includes solar power for computers. http://www.usaid.gov/stories/uganda/fp_uganda_solar.pdf#search='solar%20powered%20hospital%20computers'

Solar Energy Supports Safe Vaccines in Latin America - Solar energy plays a key role in the fight to eradicate Polio and other childhood diseases and supports rural health care throughout the world. The Cold Chain is a World Health Organization & Pan American Health Organization support effort that uses reliable refrigeration to conserve vaccines from manufacture to distribution to point of use. Solar electricity is used in non-electrified communities to maintain a safe supply of vaccines and to freeze icepacks for transport to the most remote populations. Vaccine refrigeration, lighting, safe water supply, communications, and medical appliances are powered by solar electricity at rural health care facilities throughout Latin America.

MONOC (Monmouth Ocean Hospital Service Corporation), the largest emergency medical services agency in New Jersey, has flipped the switch on a 119 kilowatt solar energy system that will generate about 20 percent of its electricity needs and contribute to a cleaner, healthier environment. MONOC is believed to be the only major health care organization in the state to invest in such a renewable energy system. MONOC provides ambulance and paramedic services for more than 100 municipalities in New Jersey, as well as medical and specialty care transport programs for over 20 hospitals in the state. More than 700 panels installed on the roof of the headquarters can generate as much as 20 percent of the electricity needed to run the building. (SolarBuzz.com - July 2005)

Internet Village Motoman was launched in Sept 2003 by First Mile Solutions (FMS), bringing technology to 15 solar-powered village schools, telemedicine clinics, and the governor's office in a remote province of Cambodia. According to a press release by Bernard Krisher, the system relies on an Internet access hub in the provincial capital, Ban Lung, wireless-equipped solar-powered computers in Ratanakiri, and five motorcycles, each with a storage device, a wireless transmitter card, and an antenna fitted to the back. Each of the schools can send and receive e-mail and also browse the Internet using a non-real-time search engine. Telemedicine clinics have a link with Massachusetts General Hospital. The network was implemented within one month by a team of three (adjacent) at a cost of approximately $500 per village. The project was implemented for American Assistance for Cambodia by Uni Young Technologies, FMS's deployment partner in Cambodia, which operates 225 rural schools with funding from private donors and the World Bank. In February 2005, Internet Village Motoman was expanded for villages and health centers in Kirivorn, Cambodia.

Other Issues

Solar Power and Open Source Software (OSS) hit some common nerves in certain people. The underlying philosophy is very similar. Both appeal to the ideas of:
  • Independence
  • Freedom
  • Thriftiness
  • National Security
  • Improved Health Status
  • Creativity & Innovation
  • Being Good Stewards of Resources

System Security / Disaster Recovery - Solar powered systems are excellent alternatives that can be used in place of a UPS as temporary power backup systems. They might have proven to be invaluable to the United States when Hurrican Katrina recently hit New Orleans.

National Security / Energy Independence - Of course, alternative energy solutions ought to also be considered as part of national policy to lessen dependence on oil producing nations that could hold one's country hostage. This is a national security issue that will increase over time.

Alternative Energy Markets Around the World - Finally, there are not only numerous countries around the world where power sources are not reliable, but that holds true even in many remote rural areas across the United States.

The Future

According to the 2005 report "Basic Research Needs For Solar Energy Utilization" by the U.S. Department of Energy, world demand for energy is projected to more than double by 2050 and to more than triple by the end of the century. Incremental improvements in existing energy networks will not be adequate to supply this demand in a sustainable way. Finding sufficient supplies of clean energy for the future is one of society's most daunting challenges. Sunlight provides by far the largest of all carbon-neutral energy sources. More energy from sunlight strikes the Earth in one hour than all the energy consumed on the planet in a year. Yet solar electricity currently provides only approximately 1 millionth of the total electricity supply, and renewable biomass provides less than 0.1 percent of total energy consumed.

Solar Energy according to the Worldwatch Institute reports that solar energy has surpassed wind power generation to become the world's fastest-growing energy source. Their report shows that sales of solar cells increased more than 40 percent last year, compared to wind power's growth of 25 percent. World solar markets are growing at ten times the rate of the oil industry, whose sales have expanded at just 1.4 percent per year since 1990. Worldwatch predicts that "solar energy may now join computers and telecommunications as a leading growth industry in the 21st century."

The following are some key points to keep in mind about the future:

  • Cost of traditional non-renewable, fossil fuel energy sources are escalating
  • COTS solar energy solutions are becoming more readily available
  • Solar energy can be part of a hybrid solution that uses solar, wind, and traditional electrical energy sources, all working together
  • Hybrid solar energy systems should be a priority solution for both 1st world and 3rd world nations - for all nations.

Recommended Next Steps

There are a number of recommendations and next steps for senior executives of health care organizations as it relates to solar and renewable energy:
  • Commission a detailed systems requirements analysis and cost/benefit study into the potential uses of hybrid solar energy systems.
  • Encourage health care facility and technology designers and architects to consider solar and renewable energy into their next generation designs.
  • Conduct a small pilot test of solar powered computer systems and incorporate renewable energy considerations in all future health care buildings.
  • Support political action that encourages much higher levels of government funding of solar and renewable energy.
  • Implement a solar powered production environment for your web site, a rural health clinic, or a telemedicine program.
  • Expand use of solar powered systems over time as the benefits are documented.
  • Take a solar and renewable energy position and seek out funding sources that will support this next generation of community and economic development.
  • Get started now!

It is our belief that health care organizations and communities that take the lead in solar and renewable energy will generate positive public relations, attract new funding sources, and support further economic development. It has been clearly stated that there are multiple benefits to organizations and countries that make the move towards "hybrid" energy systems that incorporate solar, wind, and traditional electrical power sources. Benefits range from improved health status, reduced energy consumption, energy independence, reductions in operating costs, and increased protection and disaster recovery capabilities in times of man-made and natural disasters.

Other References

About the Authors

Peter Groen is an adjunct faculty member at Shepherd University in West Virginia.

Joanne Marko is a health care consultant in the metropolitan D.C. area.

Marc Wine is the Coordinator for Intergovernmental Health IT within the Office of Intergovernmental Solutions, U.S. General Services Administration (GSA). He also is a guest lecturer on Medical Informatics at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Douglas Goldstein is a "Practical Futurist", author, keynote speaker, and President of Medical Alliances, Inc.


Peter Groen, Joanne Marko, Marc Wine and Douglas Goldstein

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