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The Power of Refugee Camps going Clean Energy

May 19th, 2017 · No Comments

The UNHCR has announced that the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan is now 100% powered by solar energy. This is (putting aside, I guess, places that were ‘powered’ by burning wood …) “the first refugee camp powered by renewable energy.”

Azraq refugee camp’s solar farm, Adeeb al Bassar, Jordan.

The 2-megawatt solar photovoltaic (PV) plant will allow UNHCR to provide affordable and sustainable electricity to 20,000 Syrian refugees living in almost 5,000 shelters in Azraq camp, covering the energy needs of the two villages connected to the national grid. Each family can now connect a fridge, a TV, a fan, have light inside the shelter and charge their phones,

Prior to this installation, the Azraq camp had infrequent, unreliable, and often simply inadequate electricity from the (over)stressed Jordanian grid. This 2 mw solar far turns this equation around and could well mean a net exporting of electricity to the grid.

Paid for with an Ikea grant, the solar farm eliminates the UNHCR’s electricity costs and thus frees up resources for meeting other humanitarian needs.

And, as (okay, sadly, if …) the refugee camp is dismantled when it is no longer required, these solar panels can continue clean electrons into the Jordanian grid.

Lost, somewhat, in the celebration of this milestone (first 100% clean electricity refugee camp) is the real power of this and ability to act in the future:

  • Refugee camps are typically ‘off-grid’ or in high-stressed environments with very high cost and high-pollution electricity (such as from diesel generators).  Solar pv — which is dropping rapidly in price and increasingly cost competitive in straight out competition with fossil-fuel sources — can deliver electrons for a fraction of the cost of a diesel generator.
  • Like with the U.S. military in deployed operations, the straight dollar cost isn’t the only concern: one has to get oil to those diesel generators. Installing solar panels, by definition, reduces the amount of transportation required to support a refugee camp. And, in places with uncertain (or non-existent) security situations (think Somalia, Darfur, inside Syria, …), reducing that transportation doesn’t only save money but saves lives.
  • Solar pv is a natural with distributed grids — including those, like refugee camps, which can rapidly emerge and expand.

Now, one needs to be careful in calling this ‘green’, as it a truly ‘green’ refugee camp would be highly resource (energy and water) efficient, provide clean (including for example, low-VOC) housing that can be transitioned into long-term housing, have agricultural activities (from container gardening to developing permaculture in areas around the camp) to employ & feed the refugees, etc, etc …

The Azraq deployment is a good step forward and should be lauded as such.  However, solar pv should be standard kit, not press release material, for the UNHCR.

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Tags: solar · UN