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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

World's biggest solar power plant for a refugee camp opens in Zaatari

Funded by Germany, the 12.9-megawatt plant will increase electricity supply to 14 hours a day from eight previously

Part of a new 12.9-megawatt solar power plant, funded by the German government, that went into operation on November 13, 2017. Khalil Mazraawi / AFP
Part of a new 12.9-megawatt solar power plant, funded by the German government, that went into operation on November 13, 2017. Khalil Mazraawi / AFP

The UN and Jordan switched on the world's largest renewable energy project in a refugee camp on Monday, considerably brightening the lives of more than 80,000 Syrians in northern Jordan.

The 12.9-megawatt solar power plant at the Zaatari Syrian refugee camp will supply homes, clinics, schools and other facilities for residents.

Jordan now hosts the only two refugee camps in the world that are fully powered by solar energy, according to UN officials. The other camp also houses refugees from Syria's civil war.

The plant at Zaatari, funded with a €15 million (Dh64m) grant from the German government through the KfW Development Bank, is expected to give service for at least 25 years.

Crucially, it increases the electricity supply to refugees’ homes from eight hours a day to 14 hours, which residents say will “change lives” in their makeshift city at the edge of the northern Jordanian desert.

The joint project by the Jordanian and German governments was prompted by the recognition that funding for Syrian refugee aid had started slowing down and that a sustainable, independent energy source would provide long-term security for the camp population, German and UN officials said.

“Safe and continuous electricity supply is a basic need for the refugee population, with this project we are ensuring it for years to come,” said Joachim Nagel, a KfW executive board member.

The plant also brings tremendous savings, relief officials say. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, used to spend as much as US$1 million a month (Dh3.67m) to provide electricity to the Zaatari camp. By restricting the power supply to eight hours at night, the UN reduced the bill to $500,000 month in the past year.

The savings of more than $5.5 million a year can be spent on improving other areas of life in Zaatari and assisting the most vulnerable refugees in Jordan, UN officials say.

The UNHCR faces constant funding shortfalls that affect its ability to help the hundreds of thousands of refugees in Jordan. As of September, its 2017 budget for Jordan was 40 per cent unfunded, leaving it with a $113.8m shortfall.

“Innovative projects such as this one are key to responding to the needs of a population facing long-term displacement,” said Stefano Severe, UNHCR representative to Jordan.

A steady electricity supply will also be a relief to Zaatari residents, who struggled through power outages during the harsh winters and desert storms.

The solar power station will also relieve the burden on the national power grid in northern Jordan, which has seen an influx of about 200,000 Syrians over the past five years. Jordanian energy officials have said that adding the demand from Zaatari, which at its peak housed more than 120,000 Syrians, was akin to adding a major city to an already outdated power grid overnight.

The construction of the plant has created jobs for more than 75 Syrian refugees, many of whom will stay on to manage the power station.

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Read more:

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Zaatari residents describe the prospect of having electricity for 14 hours a day as “life-changing.”

Power supply was previously restricted to between 6pm and 2am, creating a rush to charge phones and do chores before it cut out again. With limited lighting between the caravans and tents, many forbade their children and family members from venturing out late after dark.

To get electricity during the daytime, families would have to install solar panels above their caravans at a cost of between 300 and 500 Jordanian dinars (Dh1,550-2,590) — beyond the means of most households.

Although the exact timings for the extended power supply have yet to be decided, residents are looking forward to being able to use refrigerators and washing machines and their children being able to study late. The walk to the bathroom or between caravans at night will now be lit, no longer perilous journeys, they say.

Some changes are as simple as entertainment.

“For years my children have wanted to watch cartoons and children’s TV shows to provide them with an escape from our current hardships,” says Bassem Mohammed, a father of five from Deraa who has spent four years in the camp. As children’s programmes come on mostly during the day, when electricity was cut, his children spent their time outdoors — even during dust storms, often coming down with acute asthma.

“We hope that they can finally watch some cartoons and stay out of the dust.”

The new solar plant is particularly important for Jordan, which imports 97 per cent of its energy at a cost of nearly one-fifth of its gross domestic product, and heavily subsidises electricity. The project also moves Jordan closer towards it targets of generating 10 per cent of its electricity needs from renewable sources by 2020, and 20 per cent by 2025.

In May, the Azraq Syrian refugee camp in Eastern Jordan became the first in the world to be fully powered by renewable energy when the UN and Jordan turned on a 2MW solar power plant. The plant, funded by the Ikea Foundation, provided electricity to more 20,000 camp residents for the first time since the camp was established in 2014 and is expected to expand coverage to 36,000 refugees there by the end of the year.

The Azraq power plant saves the UN refugee agency $1.5 million per year.

Hosting an estimated 1.3 million Syrian refugees, only 660,000 of whom are registered with the UN, costs Jordan $1.5 billion a year, or four per cent of GDP and a staggering 16 per cent of government revenues, according to the country’s ministry of planning and international co-operation.

The ministry calculates the indirect costs of hosting the Syrian refugee community at around $3.1bn a year.