There is a “hidden” need for energy in the world’s refugee camps, where some 26 million people live, and the International Renewable Energy Association (IRENA) says it’s time to move away from the dirty diesel generators that are often the primary energy source that serves them.
A study based on four such camps, two in Ethiopia and two in Iraq, makes a case for deploying solar technologies in order to meet the humanitarian needs of people living in what are essentially small cities. The research conducted in partnership with the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, looks at how solar power can deliver energy for lighting, water pumps, cooking and related needs.
What IRENA stresses is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution because different nations and the refugees they host have varying degrees of access to energy to begin with. Across five tiers of energy access, those living at the lowest end are routinely using candles and cook stoves with no electrical appliances. Those at the highest end have fairly reliable grids to power air conditioning and other devices.
About 95 percent of all people without electricity are living in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, so it matters where the refugees are and how long they’re likely to be there. At the two Iraqi camps, power grids deliver light for between 16 and 24 hours a day, although outages are common and that means reliance on diesel-fueled generators. In the Ethiopian camps, though, just 7 percent of refugees had diesel-fueled lighting for about four hours daily.
For cooking, the Iraqi facilities generally rely on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). Yet 87 percent of the Ethiopian refugees are using firewood, with most of the country still using wood, charcoal or animal dung, and they find themselves trading food rations for precious fuels. Solar energy would reduce the deforestation and other environmental costs, as well as the emissions, but it would also improve food security and relieve tensions leading to conflict with local Ethiopians competing for the same resources.
The case studies reveal old, inefficient power delivery systems because of existing infrastructure where available, and unnecessary emissions from diesel generators that are “oversized” for the tasks where they are used.
It’s not just the emissions and environmental impact though. UNHCR, which wants to reduce its own carbon footprint, says it spends US$35 million per year on diesel fuel to keep generators running. That demand is based on its own needs for offices, clinics and humanitarian staff, alongside the refugees.
Solar deployment – especially the use of mini-grid systems – has the potential to change humanitarian aid and life in refugee settlements. It is part of an overall approach that boosts sustainability even as the number of refugees is expected to grow in the coming years, many of them because of climate impacts.
“In all of the refugee settlements visited in the study, the installation of solar power has alleviated the reliance on diesel generators,” the IRENA report said. “Trees have been planted in efforts to rehabilitate land that has been deforested or degraded. Solar street lights have been installed to light up key locations in settlements, and some refugees have access to solar lamps to keep the lights on after dark.”