Bright Ideas for Energy Solutions in Refugee Camps

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Sustainable Energy

Bright Ideas for Energy Solutions in Refugee Camps

The Azraq camp in Jordan. Sumaya Agha/Mercy Corps.

More than 100 aid agencies helped to build the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan’s desolate northeast desert, designing it to shelter nearly 130,000 refugees of Syria’s civil war.

Aid organizations and government agencies from across the globe assist the displaced Syrians by providing basic household amenities, such as mattresses, blankets, cookstoves, and first aid kits. A sense of community can be felt at Azraq as children play in sports centers while women and men congregate at community centers and visit shared supermarkets, health centers, and mosques.

But when the sun goes down, the camp falls into darkness. Despite their numbers, the aid and relief organizations haven’t come up with a way to provide basic energy needs.

Without electricity at Azraq, there isn’t sufficient street lighting at nightfall for residents to collect water or visit the communal bathrooms. Women and children can’t venture to different areas of the camp: It’s too dangerous after dark.

"You can't visit friends, the kids can't do their homework,” Mayada, a Syrian refugee, told UN officials. “By 9 or 10 o'clock, most of the camp is in bed."

Most host countries view refugee camps as temporary and don’t connect them to power grids, despite the fact that many camps are active for 10 years or more.

“Some of the reasons why many of these interventions fail in humanitarian settings are to do with lack of technical specialists running the day-to-day energy operations,” Ben Good, CEO of the Global Village Energy Project, told the UN High Commissioner for Refugees-Innovation. “Placing the right people with the right skills to monitor and maintain [solar panels in refugee camps, for example] makes it more sustainable.”

To solve this issue, agencies and the private sector have joined to create plans for sustainable energy that both employ refugees and are beneficial to host communities.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees and furniture giant IKEA are leading the Brighter Lives for Refugees Campaign, working to build and connect Azraq to a local solar energy grid. Twenty Azraq residents are being trained to construct and operate the grid. In addition, any energy unused by the camp will be funnelled to the Jordanian national energy grid. When the Azraq camp eventually closes, the solar energy equipment will be given to the Jordanian government.

In addition, private solar energy company SunEdison is working with an array of government agencies, as well as NGOs, think tanks, and nonprofits, to illuminate areas of Jordan where refugees live.

While implementation plans are still in development, SunEdison’s Outdoor Microstation 3500 can supply 7.9 kilowatt-hours per day, providing enough energy for street lights and for approximately 25 households to have five hours of electricity nightly.

While collaboration among governments, aid groups and industry is still a work in progress, the UN plans to continue working with the private sector to devise innovative and enduring energy solutions to make living in a refugee camp safer and more comfortable.

"People tell us it will make a huge difference to them just to be able to switch a light on again, making them feel more at home." said UNHCR Energy Adviser Paul Quigley.

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