Refugee camps powered by renewable energy

 By Chris Dalby

The world is facing its worst humanitarian crisis since World War II, according to the UN. The refugee crisis has seen camps sprout up around the world, built by the UN, national governments and NGOs. As organizations seek to make refugee camps more sustainable and cheaper, renewable energy has emerged as an increasingly popular solution. (Camps are often near borders or in inhospitable parts of the world, unreachable by conventional grids.)

There is a major economic argument to be considered. Chatham House, in providing the first report dedicated to energy use in refugee camps, said that, in 2014, household energy use among forcibly displaced people amounted to around 3.5 million tonnes of oil equivalent at an estimated cost of $2.1 billion. The cost of installing solar lanterns and environmentally friendly stoves would be $323 million a year in fuel costs in return for a one-time capital investment of $335 million for the equipment.

Refugee children with solar lights (Chris Morrow, Wikimedia)

Speaking to the Guardian, Chatham House’s Glada Lahm said that “these displaced people and refugees are part of the 2.9 billion living in energy poverty around the world, but the sustainable development goals and the Sustainable Energy for All Initiative didn’t mention them. They are a grey area.” But the benefits are far more than purely financial. Solar lighting protects women from sexual assault. It allows refugee families to enjoy a measure of independence with their private energy installations and creates jobs by teaching young people how to maintain and install said installations. The idea took a big step forward when UNHCR created the Safe Access to Fuels and Energy (SAFE) Program in 2014, which brings innovative technology solutions to refugee camps and poor parts of the world, covering street lighting, sustainable fuels and efficient cooking solutions.

UNHCR packages (TSgt Steve Staedler, Wikimedia)

Jordan, which has taken in numerous refugees from Syria, held a public tender in 2015 to power camps sustainably, in which 25 companies took part, showing how this niche is actually attracting real business opportunities. The result of the tender was another strong step. The winner was not a global energy company, looking to bolster their annual report with some good PR. Mustakbal, a Jordanian solar leader, was picked to install the solar farm and hire refugees to do much of the work. The project had some other welcome support. UNHCR partnered up with IKEA for the Brighter Lives for Refugees campaign, which paid for the installation in Jordan’s Azraq camp. IKEA has donated over 30 million euros to the UNHCR for its campaign, with 1 euro coming from every lamp or bulb bought in IKEA stores over the campaign periods. “Light is absolutely essential,” said Anne-Marie Grey, UNHCR’s executive director in the US. “When you go into a camp, you realize how it’s a safety issue as much as a right to light or a right to energy issue.” Such partnerships are also an important money-saving opportunity for the UNHCR, especially at a time when UN funding is under threat. In the Dadab camp in Somalia, UNHCR spends $2.3 million a year on diesel oil and each family spends an average of $17.20 a month on energy, 24 percent of its income (this compares to 4 percent in the UK).

So, two years on, what is the state of Azraq? Did the combination of UN agencies, Swedish generosity and Jordanian entrepreneurship pay off? It has been a roaring success. In May 2017, Azraq became the first refugee camp to be entirely powered by solar energy. 20,000 Syrian refugees are directly benefiting from the new power plant, with a capacity of 2 megawatts. It cost a total of $9.6 million to build but is expected to save UNHCR $1.5 million a year, which will go toward other improvements in the camp, such as sanitation and shelter. And the work done at Azraq is not just for lighting and cooking. Each family can now receive a fridge, a TV, a fan and charge their phones. The latter can be a lifeline for people torn apart from their relatives and loved ones. At the inauguration ceremony on May 18, UNHCR Deputy High Commissioner, Kelly T Clements, said that “lighting up the camp is not only a symbolic achievement; it provides a safer environment for all camp residents, opens up livelihoods opportunities, and gives children the chance to study after dark. Above all, it allows all residents of the camps to lead more dignified lives.”
It is particularly telling that such a milestone was accomplished at a refugee camp in Jordan which, while one of the more stable and prosperous countries in the Middle East, remains a developing nation. Given recent problems at camps in Europe, such as Sangatte in France or Idomeni in Greece, there is evidence now to show that an initial investment of capital and political can save problems down the line.

SEE MORE: Eni brings light to Dadaab by Gabriella Galloro

Furthermore, this is a not a one-size-fits-all solution. Technologies can be deployed, based on the needs of the refugees and the means of the authority or group overseeing the camp. In sub-Saharan Africa, one critical challenge is access to clean drinking water. Solar water pumps can be a solution there, providing an easy-to-use technique and cutting down on the noise and pollution of a diesel pump. Another way of providing some much-needed agency to families is through solar cookers. These return a semblance of communal life but, more importantly, help to achieve 17 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Much like solar streetlights, cookers also play an important role in driving down sexual violence. They allow women and girls to not spend hours a day gathering firewood, often far afield, given the concentration of people in a camp. Rachel Andres, director of the Solar Cooker Project, told LA Weekly that “when we started to look into what we could do to help them, we realized that, in fact, even though they were in a refugee camp, they weren’t safe.” Solar lighting, cookers and water pumps are not a panacea. They cannot return refugees to their former lives. But they can help to create jobs, develop an economy and return a semblance of community to difficult parts of the world.

SEE MORE: “Life is changing…” by Eniday Staff

about the author
Chris Dalby
Journalist. Editor. China, Mexico, Latin America, Asia, place branding, Olympics, oil and gas, mining, renewable energy, international politics.