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News article20 June 2022Joint Research Centre3 min read

How to provide refugee camps in sub-Saharan Africa with sustainable and reliable energy

Aerial drone photo of a solar power plant in Africa.
© Sebastian –

Deploying solar mini-grids across the nearly 300 refugee settlements in sub-Saharan Africa would deliver clean and reliable energy to 5 million people while avoiding the emissions of 2.86Mt CO2 over 20 years, compared to the use of diesel generators. This is roughly equivalent to the yearly emissions of 1.5 million cars in the EU driven for 15000 km.

The findings were shared in a recent article published in Nature Energy by JRC and Utrecht University scientists.

The study provides a consistent estimation of the environmental benefit and overall costs of providing clean electricity access to the almost 5 million refugees. This information could help decision-makers evaluate whether and how to deploy new energy infrastructures.

Effective strategies for financing electrification of rural or vulnerable communities remain a challenge in Sub-Saharan Africa. People living in refugee camps are among the most affected by lack of access to electricity. Yet, they are too often left out of the electrification efforts, partly because the settlements are considered temporary and because of a poor understanding of their energy needs.

The energy needs in refugee camps

By interviewing 300 refugees and using publicly available traditional and Earth observation data, the scientists estimated a total electricity demand of 154 GWh/year. This figure includes lighting, air circulation, and phone charging for 1.15 million households and the estimated demand of almost 59,000 microbusinesses and around 7,000 institutional loads. To put these numbers in perspective, a high-income country with a similar population would consume around 150 times more electricity.

The analyses shows that it is feasible to meet the needs by deploying fully renewable mini-grids in the almost 300 refugee settlements. Mini-grids are electric power generators and distribution systems that provide energy for remote settlements such as refugee camps.

Outside the house, access to electricity is also associated with improved women's safety, health care and education. Moreover, a mini-grid also provides income-generation opportunities for the refugees and their host communities, by facilitating informal micro-businesses such as cooled-beverages vendors, phone charging spots, and hair-dressing salons.

The cost

The study estimates that covering the electricity needs for the almost 5 million refugees living in 300 settlements in Africa with solar mini-grids would cost just over US$1billion.

While deploying fully renewable photovoltaic mini-grids instead of other less environmentally friendly alternatives has a higher up-front cost, the report highlights that several previous studies have found solar options to be less expensive when comparing their lifetime viability.

The detailed results of the study are explained through the open-source web tools integrated in the JRC Africa Knowledge Platform: Energy Tool and Energy Indicators.

Previous work: What the JRC does for clean energy in Africa

Over the last year, the JRC team published a series of high-impact-factor peer-reviewed papers which provide a basis for planning clean energy programmes in Sub-Saharan Africa. The findings can support a better integration of energy, health and humanitarian policy by identifying the areas or countries where the investments are most needed.

The research provides a bottom-up geographic information system (GIS) framework for policy makers, researchers, consultants, and other stakeholders.



Publication date
20 June 2022
Joint Research Centre