Clean energy for refugees could cut costs and reach more people, report says

A Syrian refugee lights a fire at the Horgos border between Serbia and Hungary, in Horgos, Serbia. (Credit: AP Photo/Manu Brabo)

Basic changes to the way refugees camps are powered could save $323 million a year in fuel costs. Bigger changes could increase that savings for aid groups, already struggling to meet the needs of the more than 60 million displaced people, according an analysis published by the U.K.- based Chatham House, with the backing of U.N. agencies and NGOs.

“Energy is fundamental to livelihoods and going about your daily business,” said Owen Grafham, a co-author of the report, in an interview with Humanosphere. “A lot of organizations are realizing that energy is a critical aspect of humanitarian response and probably hasn’t been appropriately resourced.”

An estimated 2.9 billion people live in what the World Bank considers energy poverty. Time and money are spent collecting firewood and burning inefficient fuels for cooking and light. It is most stark in refugee camps where organizations rely heavily on diesel-powered generators for things like water pumps and electricity. The Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya spends about $2.3 million per year on diesel, according to the report.

“Many agencies are using diesel generators.” Grafham said. “If you use a solar hybrid system you are going to save humanitarian agencies money and create a more efficient system.”

And diesel is pretty bad for the environment. Making the switch to more sustainable technologies could cut 6.85 million tCO2 per year. The report represents the first step toward finding solutions that would save money, increase access to energy and reduce carbon emissions. All are possible, but it comes at an upfront cost.

The report outlines three tracks humanitarian organizations could take to address the problem. The more basic solutions, like clean cookstoves and solar lamps, are cheaper, short-term ways to reduce costs and increase energy access. More expensive ideas, like micro-power grids and liquefied petroleum gas ovens, could reap even greater benefits – which includes doubling cuts in carbon emissions.

Implementation will require more money and changes in the way refugee responses are funded. The most basic option will cost $323 million for the technology alone, not including the transportation, training, maintenance and set-up fees required to get things going. It is not as simple as giving away solar lamps to families. Finding that kind of start-up money may be a tall order when refugee responses are already grossly underfunded. The Syrian response alone fell more than $400 million short of its funding requests.

But it is the long-term savings and environmental benefits that the report says would make the initial cash outlay worthwhile. The reality is that refugees spend an average of 17 years living in camps. Temporary solutions to crises often require long-term responses. As a further benefit, these energy investments could help out the host communities.

“We are not at all saying that interventions should prioritize refugees over the host communities around them,” said Grafham. “It should be recognized that the host communities often lack access to energy themselves. A lot of the arguments we are making are about how you can introduce energy solutions that benefit the host community and the refugees.”

The ideas are being put to the test. The analysis is moving into a pilot phase. Humanitarian organizations and the U.N. are launching programs in Kenya, Jordan and Burkina Faso to see what it takes to increase access to energy. Grafham says small-scale projects were already happening in places like Jordan, the hope is to build on those initiatives.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.