Plug and play for refugees

Low-cost technologies are helping refugee camps get some basic comforts

Access to clean and affordable energy for all is a sustainable development goal for the United Nations and the IEC is contributing to the effort with a number of its International Standards. While access to electricity remains an issue for many of the world’s poorest, refugee camps are finding that cheap solar energy is a way of overcoming the odds.

Ikea flatpack solar house
IKEA has teamed up with UNHCR to provide a shelter equipped with a solar panel roof

One of the horrendous consequences of natural disasters is that people can lose their homes and virtually all their belongings in one fell swoop. Many are then forced to live in emergency shelter situations or join the ranks of people who have fled war zones or famine situations to dwell in refugee camps. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are 2,6 million refugees in the world who have lived in camps for over five years. While the distress of their predicament cannot be understated, several low-cost technologies are helping them find some level of comfort and solace.

Here comes the sun

Solar energy is the thread linking them together. Solar Pico Systems (SPS) are cheaper than traditional photovoltaic systems because they use much smaller compact and lightweight solar panels to generate a small amount of electricity to power low energy-requirement objects such as lamps or mobile phones. SPS are plug and play and generally cost under USD 200.The development of SPS goes hand in hand with the increasing use of light emitting diode (LED) technology: LEDs can provide bright electric light with very little electric power and are much more efficient than conventional incandescent lamps. Rechargeable batteries are also part of the mix. Lithium-ion batteries may still be a little expensive, but they have a high-energy density allowing for additional charge/discharge cycles. They are also small and provide comparatively great energy efficiency.

There are two types of SPS available: Pico solar lanterns which provide light but can also provide energy to charge a mobile phone or operate a radio and Pico PV Home Systems which can provide energy for several lights, mobile phones and radios. The advantage of Home Systems is that they are scalable and can meet growing electrical demands.

Ikea flat-pack

SPS technology is already improving the lives of refugees as it replaces dangerous, expensive and toxic kerosene lights in camps around the world. Examples abound, starting with the work accomplished by the Global Bright Light Foundation, a non-profit outfit which aims to bring safe, healthy and cost-effective solar power to people living without access to electricity. The foundation helped refugees in the Kiziba camp adjacent to Lake Kivu in Rwanda get access to light by supplying them with solar lanterns. As a result, women and children in the camp felt safer, especially when they had to use the camp latrines at night time.

Similarly, IKEA has teamed up with the UNHCR through its not-for-profit foundation to provide a flat-pack self-assembly refugee shelter equipped with a solar panel roof. The pack fits into two boxes and can be assembled by four people in four hours following the Swedish company’s familiar picture-based instructions. The solar roof provides four hours of electric light or mobile phone charging via a USB port. The shelter, which is made of insulated polypropylene panels, costs USD 1 250.  While this is more expensive than a tent, it provides a secure, weather resistant shelter which will last at least three years. Médecins Sans Frontières employed the shelters as clinics following the deadly 2015 earthquake in Nepal. Many are used in Irak and in Djibouti for refugees fleeing Yemen.

Big (solar!) farm

Plans are afoot for using solar energy on a wider scale. The UNHCR, together with the Jordanian government, has opted to develop a power grid and solar power plant for the Asraq refugee camp which is situated in the Jordanian desert. The camp is home to 50 000 Syrian refugees and while solar lanterns are used, most of the power is generated by diesel generators.

The decision was taken partly because it fitted in with the Jordanian Government’s target of increasing the contribution made by renewable energy to its electrical needs. But according to the UNHCR, it will also reduce the cost of electricity in the camp as well as making it more widely available and cleaner for the environment. The plant will fully meet the electricity needs of the camp and any surplus will be sold to neighbouring communities.

Asraq is the first refugee camp to be powered by a solar plant but the UNHCR views it as an example for other camps to follow.

Crucial and renewable

The IEC has published a wide number of International Standards in the field of renewable energies and has focused its considerable expertise on solar energy. Some of this work comes under the remit of IEC Technical Committee (TC) 82: Solar photovoltaic energy systems which includes SPS. Larger installations are within the scope of IEC TC 117: Solar thermal electric plants. The TC prepares International Standards for systems of solar thermal electric (STE) plants for the conversion of solar thermal energy into electrical energy and for all the elements (including all sub-systems and components) in the entire STE energy system. Another Committee involved in the lighting field is IEC TC 34: Lamps and related equipment for general, professional and emergency lighting. On the battery front, IEC TC 21: Secondary cells and batteries works on Standards related to renewable energy, for instance the IEC 61427 series. 

Quality control is also ensured thanks to the essential work carried out by the IEC in the area of conformity assessment. Global testing and certification systems offered by the IEC System of Conformity Assessment Schemes for Electrotechnical Equipment and Components (IECEE) guarantee that equipment like SPS and solar plants meets the required quality, performance and efficiency benchmarks, as defined by IEC International Standards. IECQ, the IEC Quality Assessment System for Electronic Components, has put in place the IECQ Scheme for LED Lighting that can be applied to certify manufacturers and suppliers of electronic components, modules and assemblies used in the production of LED packages, engines, lamps, luminaires and associated LED ballasts/drivers.