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Energy Efficiency critical to effective Covid-19 vaccine rollout

As South Africa is preparing for a broad roll-out of the country’s vaccine programme, energy efficiency is a factor to consider, says the South African National Energy Development Institute, (SANEDI).

Energy is crucial to operate cold chains that store vaccines. The Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccination against COVID-19 has a shelf life of up to two years if it is stored at -20°C. The J&J vaccination can also be safely stored in a domestic fridge for up to one month. The effectiveness of this vaccine though, depends entirely on an uninterrupted supply of energy to maintain its low storage temperature requirements.

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As such, SANEDI highlights the vital importance of energy efficiency in the current energy-constrained situation, to support our country in the government’s effort to vaccinate South Africans against COVID-19.

SANEDI’s General Manager responsible for Energy Efficiency, Barry Bredenkamp: “As the vaccine roll-out extends from the main urban centres to the more remote rural areas of the country, it could become harder to sustain an unbroken cold chain in the broader logistical scheme-of-things. If there is an energy outage for whatever reason, freezers and fridges will lose temperature, potentially compromising the vaccine. Which is why we all need to do everything in our power to conserve energy and be as energy efficient as possible, during this trying time.”

Using efficiency principles conserves energy in the long run

Bredenkamp reminded South Africans to be mindful of energy consumption: “Heating water is one of the most energy-intensive processes in the home and therefore one of the most expensive. Be sure to set your geyser temperature to 60 degrees. Also, when cooking on electric hobs, match the pan size to the element size, for example a 12cm pan on a 16cm burner will waste more than 40% of the heat. Remember to also insulate ceilings, doors and windows, wherever possible.”

He pointed out a recent research report indicates that domestic refrigeration is a major contributor to high energy consumption. This can be overcome by reducing the frequency of opening-and-closing the refrigerator, ensuring the doors are always properly closed and the door seals are in a good condition.

Dr Ashok Sarkar, Senior Energy Specialist Team Leader at the World Bank, recently addressed a World Bank workshop series related to Vaccine Cold-chain Challenges. In his address, he pointed out it is important to find a way to maintain and expand the cold chain for the vaccine in a climate-friendly manner. “Maintaining a cold chain can cause environmental problems for two reasons: one, because it uses energy and if that energy comes from fossil-fired power stations, that contributes to global warming. Two, many of the refrigeration units in developing and even some developed countries are not using refrigerants that have lower global warming potential even though options are available.

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Principles for reducing energy consumption can be reapplied to energy efficiency

“As the vaccine cold chains are deployed at scale, the potential is enormous for integrating cost-effective energy efficient and solar refrigeration technologies, switching to cleaner refrigerants and adopting other sustainable measures, to achieve the same cooling effect,” explained Sarkar. 

Bredenkamp concurs: “We believe that the successful roll-out of the vaccine in South Africa depends on reliable, sustainable and efficient energy throughout the value chain, which includes the warehousing, transport, end-destination storage and ultimately injecting the recipient with the vaccine.

“The same principles relating to the reduction of energy consumption in household refrigerators referred to above, apply to the use of these vaccine fridges and front-line medical staff should be made aware of this. The same applies to off-grid vaccine refrigerators in areas that do not have access to grid-connected electricity. Ultimately, the more we all play our part and save as much energy as possible, the more energy will be freed-up for use by more people in the country.”  

South Africa began its first phase of the J&J vaccine rollout on 17 February 2021. According to Johnson & Johnson, the J&J vaccine provides 57% protection against moderate-to-severe Covid-19 disease, 85% protection against severe disease and 100% protection against death, as caused by the new Covid-19 501Y.V2 variant in South Africa.

SANEDI directs, monitors and conducts energy research and development in South Africa, promoting energy research and technology innovation as well as undertaking measures to promote energy efficiency throughout the economy.

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