Jordan has taken in more than 600,000 registered refugees from neighboring Syria since the civil war broke out there seven years ago. Jordanian officials estimate, however, that the total number of Syrian refugees in the country, including unregistered refugees, is over a million. In addition to migrants from Syrian, Jordan is a host to 2 million Palestinian refugees and a smaller number of refugees from other Middle Eastern countries, such as Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen.
Faced with its own economic problems and social unrest, the influx of refugees from Syria has put an immense pressure on Jordan’s overstretched infrastructure and resources, including energy supplies. Currently, there are five Syrian refugee camps in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, two of which are temporary. According to Jordanian authorities, powering the Zaatari camp, one of the largest Syrian refugee camps in Jordan, was just like connecting a large city to an archaic electricity grid in one day. It costs Jordan 1.5 billion USD a year to host Syrian refugees.
Since last year, Jordan has found an important energy solution for thousands of refugees with the help of the German government, private corporations, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Two large Syrian refugee camps in the country – Zaatari and Azraq – are now fully powered by electricity derived from solar panels, thereby alleviating the pressure on Jordan’s energy resources.
Access to electricity has given a sense of dignity, hygiene, safety, security, comfort, and stability in Jordan’s refugee camps. Having received technical assistance from the government of the Czech Republic and funding by the German government of 17.5 million USD, a 12.9 megawatt (MW) solar plant with 40,000 panels in the Zaatari camp, located in northern Jordan, has significantly improved the lives of its 80,000 residents. With a lifespan of 25 years, the Zaatari plant is expected to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 15,600 tons per year. If previously the high cost of electricity in refugee camps meant that it was rationed to eight hours a day, the new solar plant has extended the electricity for up to 14 hours a day.
Refugees are now able to use refrigerators, fans, TV, lights, and charge phone batteries to talk to their families abroad. Energy access has boosted the safety of women and young children in the camps as it allows them to complete their daily chores earlier, keep children indoors doing homework or watching TV in the evenings instead of playing outside, or use a washroom at night. Apart from improving the daily lives of refugees, it has also empowered people to start small businesses, provide electronic business transactions, and gain new skills. For example, the Zaatari solar plant has given hands-on knowledge and skills to 75 refugees who worked on installing the plant. While many of them will be able to keep their jobs to manage the solar plant, others were able to get solar-related jobs outside of the refugee camp.
Connected to Jordan’s grid, the plant can also transfer excess energy to the national network and support nearby communities. UNHCR, which provides humanitarian aid to 650,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan, claims that the solar plant in Zaatari is expected to save the organization 5.5 million USD, which would be reinvested in other essential humanitarian purposes at the camp. The savings are timely given UNHCR’s funding shortages that hamper efforts to continue to provide assistance to Syrian refugees.
Fully sponsored by the Ikea Foundation and launched in 2017, a smaller refugee camp in northern Jordan, Azraq, is powered with a 3.5 MW solar plant. Similar to the Zaatari camp, solar power in Azraq has qualitatively improved the lives of refugees and made them more self-sufficient and empowered. Covering more than 20,000 Syrian refugees, the plant is expected to increase its reach to thousands more refugees in Jordan with the planned 1.5 MW capacity to be added in 2019. UNHCR expected to save nearly 2 million USD annually from the power plant and reduce GHG emissions by about 4,500 tons per year.
A rapid decline in the cost of solar photovoltaic cells in recent years has allowed these remarkable new solar projects to come to life. These two refugee camps are the UN’s largest grid-connected renewable energy projects. Linking refugee camps to solar power fits Jordan’s national agenda to increase the share of renewable energy sources in its primary energy mix. The country has set a target of adding 10 percent of renewable energy production to meet its energy demand by 2020. With an average of 330 days of sunshine a year, Jordan is one of the ideal locations in the world for energy derived from the sun.
Access to electricity has become one of the top priorities for millions of refugees and aid organizations around the world. For example, among the very few things that some Rohingya refugees were able to take with them when fleeing Myanmar were mobile solar panels to light their movements through jungles and to charge cell phones to communicate with people helping to find safe escape routes. Inspired by the solar projects for refugees in Jordan, UN agencies, refugee hosting nations, and global aid organizations now seek to provide access to renewable energy for all displaced people around the world. This is now possible due to the precipitating decline in costs of certain sources of renewable energy, such as solar, across the world.
Reliance on renewable energy also helps reduce the use of environmentally harmful firewood. Firewood is a main, and sometimes the only, source of energy for many refugees in various parts of the world, but it is costly and carries a lasting negative environmental impact. Access to renewable energy also reduces tensions between host nations and refugees, who can be often seen as a burden on economic resources, particularly, for developing countries, such as Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Kenya, and others, which are already struggling with domestic economic and social pressures.
Jordan’s foresight and example is literally transforming the lives of thousands of refugees, improving their quality of living and even creating opportunities for them in the future to potentially extricate themselves from the camps. Not only Jordan is providing new sources of renewable energy to the refugees and to the grid, but it is cutting down significantly on national energy costs. Jordan’s solar initiative for refugees could be an ideal model for assisting displaced persons in other parts of the world.