Development And Environment

A solar power project is in the works to put contaminated land around Chernobyl site to good use

Ukraine’s plan to turn the world’s most infamous contaminated site into a source of clean power could be a model for other places.

One of the challenges of the modern world is the threat of industrial disasters that lead to large scale contamination. While arguably the most famous such incident is the nuclear plant meltdown in Chernobyl in 1986, it caused comparably few direct casualties when compared to India’s Bhopal Gas Tragedy in 1984, which caused the immediate death of at least 3,787 people, and affected 573,000.

In such sites, contamination continues to linger. A recent effort to create a solar park in Chernobyl, though, shows a unique way in which the contaminated areas may become a source of clean energy.

An abandoned gas mask in Chernobyl. Image Credit: Henrik Ismarker
An abandoned gas mask in Chernobyl. Image Credit: Henrik Ismarker

Chinese investors are backing a large solar farm on the site of the infamous Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster, in a major boost to the use of contaminated sites around the world for renewable energy projects.

The Chernobyl plant meltdown released 400 times more radioactive material than the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. It scattered radiation across large swathes of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, where it will linger in the soil for centuries. Over 300,000 people were displaced. But 30 years on from the accident, the Ukraine government is laying the groundwork for a major solar project to be located in the fallout zone.

Building solar and wind projects on land contaminated by industrial activities and accidents is a growing trend worldwide, supported by many who oppose the use of agricultural and public lands for renewable energy. The proposed 100-megawatt Chernobyl solar project may promote this trend by taking an area associated with environmental and human health devastation and turning it into a large scale producer of clean energy.

“Once completed, Chernobyl will re-catch the global attention as a revived site of solar energy,” China National Complete Engineering Corporation and GCL System Integration Technology said in a November statement announcing their plans to build the Chernobyl solar farm. Ukraine said the Chinese companies are ready to invest over $1 billion in the project.

Exclusion zone ends

Plans to construct a solar farm in the accident area were announced just as a long-awaited arch-shaped steel structure was positioned over the main damaged unit of the former nuclear power plant.

The technological marvel was put in place in November and will shield the surrounding area from further radiation contamination for at least 100 years. The 162 metre long shield is due to be completed later this year and at a height of 108 metres is tall enough to house London’s St Paul’s Cathedral, and strong enough to withstand a tornado.

The Chernobyl reactor number 4 exploded on 26 April 1986. Image Credit: Eaomonn Butler
The Chernobyl reactor number 4 exploded on 26 April 1986. Image Credit: Eaomonn Butler

This will allow the exclusion zone to be transformed into a safe area, according to Ostap Semerak, Ukrainian Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources. “Our goal is to end the era of the exclusion zone and accident and go into the era of a new stage of development,” said Semerak, in December, on the plans for a solar facility.

Until now, the area around the disaster site has been officially closed off to people. Workers in the contaminated area must wear protective clothing and limit the amount of time they spend there.

However, the 4,662 square kilometre plot has become inhabited by wild animals, including endangered and rare species. Scientists are studying the impact that radiation is having on the animals. Meanwhile, about 200 people have returned to their abandoned homes in the area despite the danger of radiation.

Growing global trend

Just 30 km away from Chernobyl in Bragin, Belarus, another solar farm recently began operation on land contaminated from the fallout of the 1986 disaster. The 22-megawatt facility delivered by Chinese manufacturer Risen Energy is making use of land that was among the most contaminated with radioactive fallout.

The building of solar energy in the most contaminated areas of the planet underscores a growing global trend to put marginal land to use through solar and wind development, particularly as many countries grapple with optimising land use amid competing needs.

In Europe, the wish to avoid capturing agricultural land for renewable energy projects is a key driver, combined with the goal to maximise sustainable energy production.

The European Union’s suitability map for solar power systems is being built to include land contaminated by heavy metals as preferred locations for the installation of solar farms, according to a January 2016 policy assessment of solar power potential in the EU. Other policies, such as liability transfer, are being developed to ensure such land can be turned over to low carbon infrastructure projects.

Liability transfer is an agreement under which environmental risk – known and unknown; past, present and future – can be moved from one legal entity to another. This is often used for environmental remediation of hazardous sites, where a company can walk away from environmental obligations as another entity takes it on.

The United States has multiple projects of various sizes completed and underway. Landfills have become popular siting opportunities for solar farms, with towns forming redevelopment agreements with solar developers, who then make payments over the course of a lease on a site.

One innovative project saw the construction of a 2.3-megawatt solar installation on a former city landfill in Rutland, Vermont, in addition to four megawatts of battery backup, allowing the site to function as a mini grid for the surrounding area.

The US Environmental Protection Agency has developed a mapping tool that performs a preliminary screen of contaminated sites for renewable energy potential. The downloadable tool allows anyone to screen a site – from contaminated areas to underutilised rooftops – for suitability for solar or wind installations. Another tool called a “benefits matrix” allows for a quick assessment of the economic and environmental benefits of potential completed sites.

Interest in Chernobyl

The proposal to use the ultimate contaminated site for solar energy production in place of the failed nuclear energy facility has caught the attention of investors worldwide, according to the Ukrainian government, and has the potential to increase the overall interest in development of such sites for clean energy production.

The Chinese companies are among a host of global investors interested in the solar project at Chernobyl, according to the Ukrainian government. About 40 companies from around the world have expressed interest, with 10 having already sent engineers to conduct detailed capacity studies, Minister Semerak said in a recent statement.

Ukraine has noted interest from American, German and Danish companies, in addition to the Chinese companies, in the high profile project. All the interest is “a good signal to potential foreign investors,” Semerak said.

Ukraine opened the way for the solar project at the Chernobyl site in a law allowing such construction passed by Parliament in July 2016. Other technical and design provisions needed for developing the solar farm, along with economic feasibility and environmental impact studies, are currently being created in a working group with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and various Ukrainian government authorities.

China has also been trying to encourage the use of damaged or contaminated land for solar and wind power projects domestically, with plants now operating in subsidence-hit regions of Shanxi, the country’s top coal province.

While the Chernobyl project is still at an early stage, there are high hopes it could pioneer the way for transforming the use of highly contaminated land worldwide.

Jenny Johnson is a journalist who spent five years in Russia and recently relocated to Maine.

This article first appeared on The Third Pole.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

What hospitals can do to drive entrepreneurship and enhance patient experience

Hospitals can perform better by partnering with entrepreneurs and encouraging a culture of intrapreneurship focused on customer centricity.

At the Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, visitors don’t have to worry about navigating their way across the complex hospital premises. All they need to do is download wayfinding tools from the installed digital signage onto their smartphone and get step by step directions. Other hospitals have digital signage in surgical waiting rooms that share surgery updates with the anxious families waiting outside, or offer general information to visitors in waiting rooms. Many others use digital registration tools to reduce check-in time or have Smart TVs in patient rooms that serve educational and anxiety alleviating content.

Most of these tech enabled solutions have emerged as hospitals look for better ways to enhance patient experience – one of the top criteria in evaluating hospital performance. Patient experience accounts for 25% of a hospital’s Value-Based Purchasing (VBP) score as per the US government’s Centres for Medicare and Mediaid Services (CMS) programme. As a Mckinsey report says, hospitals need to break down a patient’s journey into various aspects, clinical and non-clinical, and seek ways of improving every touch point in the journey. As hospitals also need to focus on delivering quality healthcare, they are increasingly collaborating with entrepreneurs who offer such patient centric solutions or encouraging innovative intrapreneurship within the organization.

At the Hospital Leadership Summit hosted by Abbott, some of the speakers from diverse industry backgrounds brought up the role of entrepreneurship in order to deliver on patient experience.

Getting the best from collaborations

Speakers such as Dr Naresh Trehan, Chairman and Managing Director - Medanta Hospitals, and Meena Ganesh, CEO and MD - Portea Medical, who spoke at the panel discussion on “Are we fit for the world of new consumers?”, highlighted the importance of collaborating with entrepreneurs to fill the gaps in the patient experience eco system. As Dr Trehan says, “As healthcare service providers we are too steeped in our own work. So even though we may realize there are gaps in customer experience delivery, we don’t want to get distracted from our core job, which is healthcare delivery. We would rather leave the job of filling those gaps to an outsider who can do it well.”

Meena Ganesh shares a similar view when she says that entrepreneurs offer an outsider’s fresh perspective on the existing gaps in healthcare. They are therefore better equipped to offer disruptive technology solutions that put the customer right at the center. Her own venture, Portea Medical, was born out of a need in the hitherto unaddressed area of patient experience – quality home care.

There are enough examples of hospitals that have gained significantly by partnering with or investing in such ventures. For example, the Children’s Medical Centre in Dallas actively invests in tech startups to offer better care to its patients. One such startup produces sensors smaller than a grain of sand, that can be embedded in pills to alert caregivers if a medication has been taken or not. Another app delivers care givers at customers’ door step for check-ups. Providence St Joseph’s Health, that has medical centres across the U.S., has invested in a range of startups that address different patient needs – from patient feedback and wearable monitoring devices to remote video interpretation and surgical blood loss monitoring. UNC Hospital in North Carolina uses a change management platform developed by a startup in order to improve patient experience at its Emergency and Dermatology departments. The platform essentially comes with a friendly and non-intrusive way to gather patient feedback.

When intrapreneurship can lead to patient centric innovation

Hospitals can also encourage a culture of intrapreneurship within the organization. According to Meena Ganesh, this would mean building a ‘listening organization’ because as she says, listening and being open to new ideas leads to innovation. Santosh Desai, MD& CEO - Future Brands Ltd, who was also part of the panel discussion, feels that most innovations are a result of looking at “large cultural shifts, outside the frame of narrow business”. So hospitals will need to encourage enterprising professionals in the organization to observe behavior trends as part of the ideation process. Also, as Dr Ram Narain, Executive Director, Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital, points out, they will need to tell the employees who have the potential to drive innovative initiatives, “Do not fail, but if you fail, we still back you.” Innovative companies such as Google actively follow this practice, allowing employees to pick projects they are passionate about and work on them to deliver fresh solutions.

Realizing the need to encourage new ideas among employees to enhance patient experience, many healthcare enterprises are instituting innovative strategies. Henry Ford System, for example, began a system of rewarding great employee ideas. One internal contest was around clinical applications for wearable technology. The incentive was particularly attractive – a cash prize of $ 10,000 to the winners. Not surprisingly, the employees came up with some very innovative ideas that included: a system to record mobility of acute care patients through wearable trackers, health reminder system for elderly patients and mobile game interface with activity trackers to encourage children towards exercising. The employees admitted later that the exercise was so interesting that they would have participated in it even without a cash prize incentive.

Another example is Penn Medicine in Philadelphia which launched an ‘innovation tournament’ across the organization as part of its efforts to improve patient care. Participants worked with professors from Wharton Business School to prepare for the ideas challenge. More than 1,750 ideas were submitted by 1,400 participants, out of which 10 were selected. The focus was on getting ideas around the front end and some of the submitted ideas included:

  • Check-out management: Exclusive waiting rooms with TV, Internet and other facilities for patients waiting to be discharged so as to reduce space congestion and make their waiting time more comfortable.
  • Space for emotional privacy: An exclusive and friendly space for individuals and families to mourn the loss of dear ones in private.
  • Online patient organizer: A web based app that helps first time patients prepare better for their appointment by providing check lists for documents, medicines, etc to be carried and giving information regarding the hospital navigation, the consulting doctor etc.
  • Help for non-English speakers: Iconography cards to help non-English speaking patients express themselves and seek help in case of emergencies or other situations.

As Arlen Meyers, MD, President and CEO of the Society of Physician Entrepreneurs, says in a report, although many good ideas come from the front line, physicians must also be encouraged to think innovatively about patient experience. An academic study also builds a strong case to encourage intrapreneurship among nurses. Given they comprise a large part of the front-line staff for healthcare delivery, nurses should also be given the freedom to create and design innovative systems for improving patient experience.

According to a Harvard Business Review article quoted in a university study, employees who have the potential to be intrapreneurs, show some marked characteristics. These include a sense of ownership, perseverance, emotional intelligence and the ability to look at the big picture along with the desire, and ideas, to improve it. But trust and support of the management is essential to bringing out and taking the ideas forward.

Creating an environment conducive to innovation is the first step to bringing about innovation-driven outcomes. These were just some of the insights on healthcare management gleaned from the Hospital Leadership Summit hosted by Abbott. In over 150 countries, Abbott, which is among the top 100 global innovator companies, is working with hospitals and healthcare professionals to improve the quality of health services.

To read more content on best practices for hospital leaders, visit Abbott’s Bringing Health to Life portal here.

This article was produced on behalf of Abbott by the Scroll.in marketing team and not by the Scroll.in editorial staff.