x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Power refugee camps and empower their refugees

Providing refugee camps with electricity can drastically improve the quality of life for their residents, boosting safety and lowering dropout rates.

To refugees living in camps, the importance of light and electricity goes well beyond comfort – it stands for security, health, education and an improved quality of life.

Yet nights are often dark in refugee camps around the world, which provide homes to millions of displaced individuals seeking shelter in the wake of natural catastrophes or wars.

Finding a reliable, flexible and affordable source of electricity for refugees could have dramatic implications on their living situation.

Renewable energy technologies are considered a potential candidate to secure electricity to refugee camps, and what makes them so attractive is their ability to transform resources that are free and often abundant – sunlight, wind, or water – into electricity.

If we could find a way to efficiently tap into these resources, the benefits would be immense.

For example, studies have shown that dropout rates from schools in refugee camps are lower when refugees are offered electricity and lighting in their shelters, because students can work on their homework after sunset.

Violence, in particular against women, is curbed when streets are well-lit at night.

And families tend to increase their welfare by pursuing livelihood activities in the evenings.

What is the most suitable power source for camp settings? They are usually in remote areas without access to national electricity grids – and over the past few decades, diesel generators have established themselves as the prevalent source of camp power.

But diesel has drawbacks. It can be difficult to obtain, especially in war-torn regions, and problems in transporting it over long distances can lead to gaps in supply. On top of that come obvious environmental considerations.

For my master’s thesis in energy management and sustainability at EPFL, I worked in collaboration with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to find ways to optimise power supply and management in refugee camps.

UNHCR operates most of the world’s refugee camps, and it has set better access to energy for refugees as one of its goals.

It wants each individual shelter to have a functioning light bulb and a power outlet to recharge devices such as phones, while at the same time guaranteeing power supply for services such as schools, medical centres, street lights and administrative infrastructure.

Not surprisingly, solar panels came out on top in our evaluation of potential power sources. Most refugee camps are located in Africa and the Middle East, where sunlight is plentiful.

But solar panels only work when the sun is out, while demand for power peaks just before and after sunset.

Dealing with this mismatch — a common challenge, too, in urban areas that are increasing their reliance on photovoltaic energy – calls for the introduction of smart power infrastructure.

Much like smart cities, smart refugee camps would be designed to manage themselves in terms of the production, consumption, and storage of power.

Excess electricity produced during the day could be stored and drawn on when it is needed. And controlling the consumption of certain devices to ensure that supply and demand balance out evenly can prevent blackouts.

Today, especially in the Middle East and some parts of Africa, the refugee situation is dire and is likely to get worse. But there is hope that advances in technology will help improve the well-being of those trapped in this unfortunate situation and provide the power to shine a light in every shelter in every camp.

Hamed Ziade is a master’s student in energy management and sustainability at the École Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne, Switzerland.