Cutting costs and expanding access: how solar powered mini-grids could improve infrastructure in refugee camps

Men in high viz installing solar panels on a building in a refugee camp
Installing solar panels at Mahama Refugee camp (c) Meshpower

Hamish Beath, Research Postgraduate on the Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet Doctoral Training Partnership, blogs about how using solar electricity generation in refugee camps can be beneficial for both the humanitarian organisations running the camps, and those living there.

For the millions of people who live in refugee camps globally, reliable access to electricity, which most of us take for granted, can be a rarity. Although many refugee camps exist for years or even decades, they typically are not connected to the national electricity grids of their host countries. It has been estimated that 90% of camp residents globally have no access to electricity at all for lighting, phone charging, or other basic services. 

Despite these challenges, refugee settlements often host marketplaces, similar to what would be found in neighbouring communities. However, economic activities can be severely limited if artisans, shopkeepers and tradespeople don’t have access to electricity. Meanwhile, humanitarian agencies that manage these refugee camps spend millions of dollars a year on polluting diesel generators to supply power for camp operations, such as offices, street lighting and health clinics. 

A clean solution to improving energy access

These dual challenges of poor electricity access and high annual expenditure on diesel fuel could be addressed through new ways of generating and distributing electricity in refugee camps. Owing to rapid cost reductions in the last decade, an increasingly promising solution is the use of renewable sources like solar power and batteries. These can be used alongside existing diesel generators in a ‘mini-grid’, to both reduce fuel use and extend service beyond essential camp operations to other consumers, such as businesses or households. Mini-grids are isolated, community-scale electricity networks that comprise electricity-generating technologies, such as solar PV, electricity storage (batteries), and connections to households or businesses.

A new electricity system for Mahama Refugee Camp

Mahama Refugee camp, in Eastern Rwanda, is home to 58,000 people, most of whom have fled conflict in neighbouring Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The camp has been operating since 2015 and has four marketplaces, accommodating refugee businesses and providing employment opportunities for camp residents. Institutional buildings include a health centre with a new maternity unit, a police station and offices for partner organisations in the camp, such as Alight (formally the American Refugee Committee). The institutional demands for camp operations have historically been powered by diesel generation. This costs tens of thousands of dollars a year, producing noise and localised air pollution, in addition to significant carbon emissions. 

A community building at Mahama Refugee camp with solar panels on the roof
A community building at Mahama Refugee camp (c) Meshpower

In 2019, Rwandan mini-grid company MeshPower, installed solar panels (18.4 kilowatts-peak) and large batteries (78 kilowatt hours) at the camp health centre to work alongside the existing diesel generator. The aim was to significantly reduce diesel fuel usage and to use additional electricity to supply refugee businesses in one of the market areas, giving them an opportunity to boost their range of services and improve their income. Although the coronavirus pandemic significantly delayed things, many refugee businesses have now been connected tot the mini-grid. Electricity usage by these businesses has exceeded expectations and more wish to be connected, indicating that further expansion of the system could be worthwhile.

Following this, researchers at Imperial published a study that examines some of the technical aspects of the renewable energy system installed at Mahama Camp, with a view to understanding how to improve its cost efficiency and environmental impacts. They used monitored electricity demand and supply data from the newly-installed system, combined with modelling methods, to explore how the system may perform under different conditions.

They had four main findings:

  1. The renewable energy system reduced annual fuel costs and related emissions by approximately two thirds.
  2. Fine-tuning the way the diesel generator, solar panels and batteries operate together can produce further fuel savings and emissions reductions.
  3. There are important trade-offs to consider with the way the system is operated, resulting either in additional fuel burn or changing and discharging of the batteries, both of which incur economic costs.
  4. Additional costs on the system from connecting business customers can be offset, but this depends on the number of businesses and the tariff charged.
A man in high viz and a helmet sitting in front of a series of electricity boxes, monitoring the mini-grid system
Monitoring the mini-grid systems at Mahama Refugee camp (c) Meshpower

A blueprint for improving energy access?

The number of people living in refugee camps is expected to continue increasing in the coming years, due to increased global instability and climate-change-related crises forcing people to leave their homes. It is vital that people residing in refugee camps have access to decent, clean infrastructure, including electricity, so that they can properly participate in economic activity and have a better standard of living. Furthermore, humanitarian organisations must reduce their expenditure on diesel, freeing resources to fund other essential parts of their operations.

The use of low-carbon technology with diesel, and the way it is operated and managed, may offer a blueprint for other refugee settlements, giving more vulnerable people improved access to electricity, with minimised costs and environmental impacts. 

Read more in this Imperial news story.

Maximising the benefits of renewable energy infrastructure in displacement settings: Optimising the operation of a solar-hybrid mini-grid for institutional and business users in Mahama Refugee Camp, Rwanda, by Hamish Beath, Javier Baranda Alonso, Richard Mori, Ajay Gambhir, Jenny Nelson and Philip Sandwell, is published in Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews

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One thought on “Cutting costs and expanding access: how solar powered mini-grids could improve infrastructure in refugee camps

  1. Solar energy’s role in our transition to a sustainable future cannot be overstated, and your blog effectively conveys its importance. It serves as a great starting point for those interested in renewable energy and its potential to reduce our carbon footprint. Thanks for shedding light on this vital aspect of our clean energy future!

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