Challenge: How Data Helps Bringing Clean Energy to Refugee Camps

As illustrated in the seminal report of the Moving Energy Initiative, 80% of the 8.7 million refugees and displaced people living in camps have “absolutely minimal access to energy, with high dependence on traditional biomass for cooking and no access to electricity”. Thereby, they fall into ‘Tier 0’ in the Sustainable Energy for All (SE4All) initiative’s Global Tracking Framework for improving energy access. In addition, the way in which these people meet their basic energy service demands – i.e. heat, light, and power – is economically, environmentally and socially unsustainable. This means that most refugees use firewood and charcoal for cooking, and that vital camp infrastructure is powered predominantly by outdated, oversized, and low efficiency diesel generators. Hence, there is a widespread consensus that immediate action must be taken in light of the ambitions that the global community expressed in SDG7, in confluence with SDG6 and SDG8.

Recent activities illustrate that the topic of sustainable energy is gaining momentum in the humanitarian sector. This is reflected in promising international multi-stakeholder initiatives such as the Global Strategy for Safe Access to Fuel and Energy (SAFE), the Moving Energy Initiative (MEI), the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves or the Energy for Displaced People conference with participants working towards a “Global Plan of Action for Sustainable Energy Solutions in Situations of Displacement”. In addition, a variety of pilot projects have started to overcome the misconception that clean energy technologies and practices are not applicable to the refugee context. Examples include the Brighter Lives for Refugees campaign, an initiative launched by IKEA Foundation. This initiative led to the distribution of solar lanterns that allow camp inhabitants to light their shelters or charge mobile phones, and enabled the installation of solar street lights that increase camp security and allow for communal activities after nightfall. In addition to such small-scale, decentralized solutions, the recent inauguration of two megawatt-scale photovoltaic (PV) power plants near the refugee settlements of Azraq (2MW) and Mafraq Za’atari (13MW) in Jordan demonstrate that solar PV systems can also be used to power vital infrastructure of entire camps.

However, despite these promising developments, there is one central aspect that stands in the way of a timely transition towards sustainable energy in refugee camps: the absence of a central platform or forum to capture and share the status quo of energy in camps and communicate lessons learned among different stakeholder groups, i.e. camp administration, humanitarian agencies, local governments and energy committees, utility companies, host communities, and – last but not least – refugees themselves.

The consistent lack of data on energy in refugee camps complicates creating awareness for the topic, impedes rendering tangible indicators for effective decision-making, and ultimately prohibits leveraging the humanitarian sector as a platform for sustainable energy and development aid. As shown in a recent study by ETH Zurich, the lack of data on energy demand and supply in refugee camps is one of the key reasons for the limited awareness of the significant cost and emission savings that could be achieved by using solar PV instead of diesel systems to power water pumps.

Energy is simply not a focus…

There are a number of factors that explain the lack of effective energy accounting in the humanitarian sector. One of the key reasons lies in the fact that most humanitarian agencies are inherently shortsighted, and for a good reason: they were founded to specialize on providing short-term, temporary emergency relief (water, food, shelter, sanitation, medical care) to forcibly displaced people. In addition, not least because of political pressures from host countries, despite the fact that refugees stay in camps for a long time (estimates range between 13 and 18 years) these agencies are still operating under the premise that the displaced people may eventually return home.

This short-term focus is also reflected in the funding structure of humanitarian institutions. For example, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) effectively runs on annual budgets (e.g. US$ 7.7 billion in 2017), which are largely composed of voluntary contributions from governments and other donors (NGOs, private organizations, or individuals). Due to the burden of constantly having to advocate for their cause, the humanitarian sector therefore tries to minimize peaks in annual expenditures that could arise e.g. from investing into capital-intensive energy equipment, unless such investments pay off within the same year. Receiving a 1% share of the annual UN budget, the UNHCR also has little leeway in terms of administrative costs.

Therefore, UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations rarely have dedicated headcount or organizational branch focusing on energy, neither in their headquarters nor in the field, let alone the time and resources necessary to monitor and actively manage energy supply and demand in refugee camps. In turn, whereas the UNHCR recognizes that “accurate, relevant and timely data and statistics are crucial to refugee operations”, this does not apply to the domain of energy. As long as the corresponding expertise and internal advocacy is missing, there is little hope that the aforementioned organizations will suddenly begin to transform from within.

Figure 1. Problem Tree

…which leads to many negative effects

Following the common wisdom that “you cannot manage what you cannot measure”, the lack of data on energy in refugee camps is a systemic issue that entails tangible downsides for the refugee population, host communities, and the humanitarian space as a whole. The lack of data inhibits objectively comparing conventional, fossil-fueled technologies, against available clean energy alternatives in terms of their economic viability, or environmental and health impacts. For example, a recent analysis conducted based on a field trip by the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) in Tanzania shows that installing hybrid solar systems instead of diesel generators would pay back within 3-4 years, cutting annual fuel cost and CO2 emissions by 50%.

However, when it comes to system design and dimensioning, the lack of longitudinal data on energy demand over time (e.g. the load pattern of a hospital) renders it hard to assess whether an existing diesel generator can be replaced by a stand-alone solar photovoltaic (PV) system, or whether the latter must be combined with a backup diesel engine or a battery storage system. Even if such data were available, the current lack of a common platform or forum to share energy-related data would stand in the way of transferring know-how from one camp to another, even if they were in the same region. For the same reason, private sector actors have – at best – a hard time assessing whether their energy solutions could be applied in the context of refugee camps.

In turn, despite the ambition not to “reinvent the wheel”, there are frequent cases of energy interventions tailored to the humanitarian space that are implemented as pilots in a given year, but later independently developed again (cf. e.g. redeployable solar PV systems). Therefore, a lot must be done to build a more successful interface between the private sector, humanitarian agencies, and host governments, in particular, in the domain of energy, and effective data sharing could be an important step in this direction.

Upcoming next week: a model to address these issues. Stay tuned…

Icons from Tomas Knopp, The Noun Project

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