Solar-powered COVID-19 vaccines storage market sees new player with hybrid offering

Vaccine cold storage that relies on off-grid options is turning out to be not just a timely solution but also a business opportunity worth pursuing. 

After chasing the infection with the injections, efforts now seem aimed at innovations in the cold storage interventions needed to safely deliver the COVID-19 vaccines.

In a country bathing in sunlight all year long and at crucial locations facing unreliable conventional electricity supply, vaccine cold storage that relies on off-grid options is turning out to be not just a timely solution but also a business opportunity worth pursuing.

Companies in India have not been new to solar-powered solutions in healthcare with some deploying off-grid solutions for a long time now. For instance, Godrej Appliances, a major business division of Godrej & Boyce, has solutions based on solar power deep freezers and even solar-powered- medical refrigerators. In fact, a couple of years ago it showcased its medical refrigerators in Assam boat clinics. It is now leveraging its technology and offerings of solar-powered freezers for COVID-19 vaccines also.

Now, a 35-year-old Hyderabad-based company Rockwell Industries has emerged as a new entrant with an apparently unique and hybrid solution leveraging renewable energy. The company has thus far been largely meeting the cold storage needs of the cold beverages and dairy sector. It has now announced the launch of ‘Chillermill’, a chiller/freezer powered by hybrid renewable energy (solar & wind). It sees this as its USP. Reason: solar power is available in direct current (DC) and wind power in alternating current (AC) but the company, which uses both with a built-in computer chip that converts AC to DC and takes it to the freezer. The company is positioning the product as an ideal solution for storing vaccines (including those for COVID-19) and lifesaving medicines in locations where an off-grid power supply may be the best available option.

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Speaking at a virtual press conference on Thursday, March 4, company managing director Ashok Gupta says the freezer is equipped with a solar and wind power solution and the complete unit is priced between Rs 1 lakh and Rs 2.5 lakh. So far, it has received confirmed orders to make 1,000 such freezers for the export market and talks are at an advanced stage for the export of another 1,000 units. If the export order fructifies then the orders in all may be worth around Rs 20 crore. The company now plans to participate in several tenders of central & state governments, public and private enterprises for refrigerators and freezers.

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While the company sees its hybrid solution of wind and solar as a USP especially in remote locations, those in the industry see the holdover time as an equally important factor to consider.  “The biggest challenge in cold storage medical equipment particularly when they are deployed in remote locations and in secondary and tertiary health centres is the holdover time – that is if a machine is not functioning then for how long can the temperature be held within the required range of 2 degrees to 8 degrees Celcius. Godrej for instance, offers two series – one for the urban market which has 72 hours holdover time and the other for about 13 days for remote locations,” says Kamal Nandi, business head and executive vice president at Godrej Appliances.

Rockwell talks of a holdover time of 72 hours. It has a manufacturing facility in Medchal, Hyderabad, and the entire cold storage system, Gupta says, has been certified by the National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education & Research (NIPER) Hyderabad. He says since the freezers use solar and wind power, they can be deployed most suitably in locations where there is unreliable power supply. In terms of the size of the company, he says, its turnover currently is close to Rs 125 crore and aims to reach Rs 200 crore in about 18 months.

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