Fuel for Thought blog: Solar-powered wheelchairs an idea that makes sense

The International Society of Wheelchair Professionals said an estimated 23 million wheelchairs are needed annually, but only about 3 million are made.

Above, the new wheelchair acessible path at the kite beach in Dubai. A solar-powered mobility kit would cost about Dh1,345, says a research from Bangladesh. Satish Kumar / The National
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What do wheelchairs have to do with energy?

In a time when renewables, particularly solar, seem to be creeping into all sectors, why shouldn't wheelchair accessibility and renewable energy go hand-in-hand?

The idea came as I struggled with severe back pain on Monday at the World Future Energy Summit (WFES) during Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week. A contact made a joke: "You should have a wheelchair to zoom around chasing stories." I responded that to fit with the week, it should be solar- powered.

I began looking up the options for such a contraption, only to find out some staggering statistics in the world of assisted mobility.

One in 10 people need a wheelchair for transport and function, but only 13 per cent of the requirement is actually produced each year.

The International Society of Wheelchair Professionals said an estimated 23 million wheelchairs are needed annually, but only about 3 million are made. What’s more is that the market is actually worth billions and growing to over US$4 billion in revenue by 2020 from $1.23bn in 2013, according to a study from US-based Transparency Market Research.

And yet when you type in “solar-powered wheelchair” in a search engine, there isn’t much on offer.

Just like in utility scale applications, such as the solar power plants under construction at Dubai’s Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum solar complex – you will still need backup power as the sun doesn’t shine 24 hours a day. This means that even if you have a solar-powered wheelchair, you’d need a battery alongside to power at night.

This will mean that your eco-friendly chair will jump in price, and the majority of people who need such a device are unable to afford this.

Researchers led a study on solar powered mobility in Bangladesh, where the World Health Organization estimates more than 10 per cent of the population is disabled. The report details the cost of a low-powered solar solution runs to about Dh1,345 which includes the actual wheelchair, one solar panel, motor and gears and batteries.

This model is a basic motorised wheelchair with a solar panel serving as a sort of roof for the occupant. The panel charges the battery while in the sunlight so that it can sustain longer without needing another power source, such as electricity from the grid.

However, there’s another solution.

Sandro Buff had been wheelchair-bound for nearly two decades when he worked with the energy adviser, Peter Grau, to install a 3-kilowatt solar power generating system in Switzerland. This is basically a charging station that uses rooftop solar panels to power the mobile chairs.

The system used 12 solar modules from Japan’s Kyocera, allowing residents to travel around 1,500km per year all via the sun.

Renewables isn’t just about keeping the lights on, but is viable enough to trickle into other sectors that desperately need more attention.

Maybe next year one of the exhibitors at WFES could showcase their panels by offering a wheelchair charging station.

lgraves@thenational.ae

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