By the end of 2013, the number of forcibly displaced persons worldwide had reached 51.2 million, of which 33.3 million were internally displaced persons (IDPs) and 16.7 million were refugees. Access to energy is a basic human need; for these displaced people however, access to energy is a real challenge. This initial research reviews camp situations (which are home to approximately 50% of refugees) and focuses on the evidence of the benefits and impacts of sustainable energy access for displaced populations. The paper also assesses how the private sector could help to provide energy for displaced populations.
Large numbers of people in camps lack adequate access to sustainable energy; this has a negative impact on their lives. Despite numerous energy access initiatives over the years, the vast majority of displaced people still rely on traditional biomass and kerosene for cooking and lighting respectively. This can have significant impacts on the environment and on their well-being. Women and children in particular may be exposed to health and safety risks and have less time for education, livelihoods, social and other activities because of the time they need to spend collecting fuel.
Significant quantities of energy are also needed to power camp operations. Energy is needed for health centres, schools, water pumping, administration compounds and street lighting. This is currently provided by diesel generator sets, which cost the humanitarian agencies millions of dollars a year. Sustainable energy is increasingly recognized as an alternative, but it has not been mainstreamed by the agencies.
The provision of sustainable energy can reduce the negative impacts of the current strategies, offer opportunities for improved lives and economic progress, and reduce costs and environmental impacts. Yet the evidence of these impacts in camps is patchy, unsystematic and often anecdotal. The literature review shows that information is predominantly focused on stoves and that there are few studies which have independently assessed the impacts of sustainable energy actions in refugee or IDP camps. The findings do show that when improved cookstoves are appropriate, accepted and used correctly by users, they result in fuelwood savings and likely associated environmental benefits. Studies in different camps have also consistently reported that fewer fuelwood collection trips are made following the introduction of improved cookstoves. The World Food Programme found that the frequency of firewood collection is an important proxy for exposure to vulnerability to gender-based violence (GBV), with evidence suggesting that a reduction in the frequency of firewood collection may lead to a reduction in the vulnerability to GBV (WFP 2013b).
The uptake of improved cookstoves and solar lanterns can result in less household air pollution, as well as more time and cost savings for families, which allows them to spend more time on education or income-generating activities. Where sustainable energy reduces or offsets diesel, kerosene or firewood, improved cookstoves and solar lanterns can generate sizeable emissions savings. Energy efficiency and renewable energy can also significantly reduce humanitarian agencies’ fuel bills and exposure to international fuel prices.
Only a limited number of monitoring mechanisms exist for sustainable energy projects in refugee camps. Further robust research is needed to investigate the links between sustainable energy interventions and the expected outcomes and impacts for displaced populations and camp management.
Appropriate sustainable energy solutions, and how they are delivered, are constantly evolving as technology develops and costs are reduced. This is creating new opportunities for sustainable energy provision in camps. One such opportunity, made easier by developments in smart meters and mobile money, is greater engagement with the private sector.
There are opportunities for the private sector to deliver these sustainable energy options effectively. Other than product supply, the largest role that the private sector currently plays in camps is in fuel supply. It is also engaged in informal micro-grids and mobile phone charging services. The greater involvement of market mechanisms in energy delivery is likely to result in more choice for the camp residents. A better understanding of the risks and the need for incentives to facilitate market-based mechanisms is needed before any new pilot projects are designed.