A worker of Puerto Rico's Electric Power Authority (PREPA) repairs part of the electrical grid after Hurricane Maria hit the area in September, in Manati, Puerto Rico October 2017.
Alvin Baez / REUTERS

It has been more than a month since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico and still some 60 percent of the island (close to one million customers) remains without power. The situation has risen to the level of a humanitarian crisis: the lack of power also translates to deficits of clean water, refrigeration for food, and essential medicines (even as disease-spreading conditions escalate), and vital telecommunications. Schools in U.S. mainland areas with large Puerto Rican communities—including Miami, New York, and other East Coast cities—are preparing to receive thousands of new students as families abandon the island rather than potentially going months without basic services. Community advocates are stepping forward to assist the newly displaced, but the road ahead is daunting.

Puerto Ricans displaced by the storm join the ranks of some 66 million other people around the world who have been forced from their homes because of war, instability, or environmental disaster—the most since World War II. For most displaced people, the prospect of a quick move to a wealthy country is an unimaginable luxury. Instead, millions find themselves in refugee camps or informal settlements, where any sense of safety is more relative than absolute. The NGOs and international organizations in charge of these camps rightly prioritize immediate needs—food, water, shelter, medical care—but, just as in Puerto Rico, even the most basic services are reliant on energy. As a result, the sustainable and reliable provision of energy services needs to be at the top of first responders’ list of priorities.

Recent experiences in the United States demonstrate that new technologies and systems, including mini-grids and the communication and automation technologies that sync them with traditional power sources, can help prevent energy crises like the one being experienced in Puerto Rico, and also better serve those who have no choice but to migrate to refugee camps. As climate change exacerbates the risk of extreme weather events, resilience in energy systems will become more important. In many places, climate change may contribute to economic and political instability, fueling conflict and migration and making affordable, reliable electricity services in refugee camps that much more essential. Scholars and policy practitioners alike are finding that there is a strong “human, economic, and environmental case to be made for improving energy access” for refugees and other displaced communities.

KEEPING THE LIGHTS ON

Distributed energy systems, which generate and distribute power in self-contained, modular grids, can offer significant advantages over traditional electrical grids, which relay energy from larger, more centralized sources. New so-called smart devices allow them to communicate and integrate with the grid when or if it arrives, offering a major improvement on previous distributed systems, which could cause instability in the main grid as well as fall victim to power surges from it. This smart control capability can also allow distributed grids (also known as mini-grids) to detach from the main electricity transmission and distribution system during a crisis like a hurricane, preserving localized service even if the main grid goes out. Some solar power systems are even being designed to work alongside diesel generators, creating hybrid systems that have advantages over older generators as well as newer solar systems. Since Hurricane Sandy knocked out power to a significant area of Manhattan in 2012, researchers and policymakers have been exploring how these systems can best be deployed. There has, alas, been no shortage of test opportunities.

In Houston, in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, local grocer HEB was able to remain open because its mini-grid withstood the storm. After the storm, as flooding and power shortages roiled Houston, more than a dozen of the company’s stores switched on their natural gas-powered mini-grids, allowing them to operate in “island mode” and maintain their ability to provide critical supplies such as clean water, refrigerated food, and gas. Once the main grid was back online, the stores reconnected without incident, returning the mini-grids to their regular grid-support mode. 

Yet resilience is only one piece of the puzzle. Speedy recovery is also vital, and here too new energy technologies can contribute. Shortly after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, Tesla and other innovative companies offered to re-electrify parts of the island using distributed systems powered by solar panels and batteries. These companies have already begun their work. Tesla, for instance, switched on a solar array at a hospital in San Juan in late October, and has suggested its technology can get parts of the country back up and running in a matter of weeks, rather than the months-long timeline to repair and restore existing facilities put forward by the island’s utility.

Shortly after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, Tesla and other innovative companies offered to re-electrify parts of the island using distributed systems powered by solar panels and batteries.

Puerto Rico is not the first large-scale emergency test for these technologies. In southern California, for example, an industrial accident at a major natural gas underground storage facility at Aliso Canyon threatened the electricity supply in and around the cities of Los Angeles and San Diego. Over one hundred megawatts of electricity generation from utility-scale solar backed by batteries were installed in a matter of months, averting potential grid issues that could have resulted from disruptions to localized natural gas services.

POWERING AID

Not every emergency can be endured in place, however, so aid organizations are starting to study whether similar technologies could help solve some of the most serious energy challenges facing large refugee camps. Here, too, there is reason for optimism. Distributed systems are less capital intensive and faster to install than large-scale centralized systems, and can be implemented in a modular and incremental fashion to scale up or down along with needs or to focus on priority services or locations. And because of their smaller spatial domain, they are five times less sensitive to weather or military events in one location, making them more dependable in difficult operating environments, such as areas of conflict. (Indeed, the U.S. Department of Defense is making substantial investments in these technologies for just this reason.)

Today, more than five million people live in refugee camps, often on marginal land, in unsafe areas, with few available resources. A study led by Chatham House (a United Kingdom–based think tank) found that an estimated 89 percent of camp residents have little or no access to energy for lighting, and 77 percent lack energy for cooking. The majority are reliant on firewood for both cooking and lighting, putting residents—usually women and girls—at risk of violence when they venture beyond the camp’s boundaries for fuel. Although some camps are planned and built by NGOs, in many cases they are impromptu creations, built by refugees and only later assisted by humanitarian groups. Building or extending conventional electricity to such locations is typically a logistical non-starter, to say nothing of the financial hurdles to building such infrastructure. And host governments may be reluctant to see camp structures that suggest long-term links to permanent host country facilities. Because the new distributed systems are modular and self-contained, they can help address both problems.

The cost of energy is also an important concern. Chatham House found that displaced families spend around $200 per year on fuel for energy—a large economic burden borne entirely by some of the world’s most vulnerable people. Linking displaced families, who presently rely on flashlights or kerosene for lighting, to low-wattage solar mini-grids powerful enough to provide several hours of light per day would cost an estimated $574 million, according to the study. Families would save $117 million in energy costs, meaning that the grids would effectively pay for themselves within five years. Meanwhile, displaced families would have more money—and more hours of light—to begin rebuilding their lives. The technology has already been proved effective: a solar mini-grid recently came online at a camp in Jordan, enabling 20,000 Syrian refugees to power refrigerators, lights, and other building blocks of normalcy at a fraction of the cost of electricity from the grid.

The relatively high up-front costs of solar and other distributed energy systems for NGOs and international organizations operating refugee camps have been a notable barrier to their implementation, though they have dropped in the last five years. But some studies have shown that these systems could provide savings in regions where the duration of services will be multiple years, which is now often the case, even when costs are high. New financial products that provide agencies with longer-term funding could make such strategies more sustainable and they may also lower operators’ expenses on security and medical care. Certain institutional investors are increasingly looking for financial vehicles that offer a payout together with measurable social impact such as the Red Cross’ Humanitarian Impact bonds or government-backed “green” bonds that finance clean energy installations.

Still, in thinking through the financial ramifications of a grid better able to withstand extreme weather or violence, the bottom line can be hard to quantify. Resilience, both physical and political, creates a windfall but it is hard to incorporate into the financial calculations of agencies and governments. A recent study co-conducted by one of the authors compared the feasibility of building conventional and solar power plants in fragile and conflict-affected areas. All things being equal, it found that thermal and hydropower plants were far more cost-efficient than solar mini-grids. All things, however, are not equal in those environments. The risk of delay—from difficulties securing funding to variable government support and the risk of physical attack—make conventional investments a far less attractive option than solar installations.

Mini-grids’ flexibility and relative speed of deployment can also help politically. Although many displaced people and host governments plan for temporary stays, the reality tends to be something more prolonged. More than 11 million refugees have now been displaced for five years or more. The Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya is a good example. The world’s largest refugee camp has been open for a quarter century and is home to 345,000 people, yet residents still refer to it as temporary, and permanent structures are forbidden by local authorities. In such situations, modular systems can offer a delicate compromise.

All this is not to say that solar arrays and distributed systems are a panacea. For now, smaller-scale projects tend to have higher costs than large-scale centralized power grids. But new technologies and business models offer a critical step up from the status quo in terms of safety, scalability, and resilience to threat. Policymakers and international organizations should begin work now to support the installation of these systems. For instance, there are a number of statistical methods that help to assess the financial risk of an investment in uncertain contexts, but they are not commonly applied to power system planning. Governments and utilities should explore how these methods can help them better capture the lifetime costs and benefits of these technologies, so they can make more informed investment decisions on new electricity systems.

Financial planning is one thing; finance is another. The World Bank was one of the first major organizations to issue green bonds to support climate mitigation and adaptation projects in developing countries, including renewable energy projects. It should work with UNHCR and other relevant agencies to develop a similar product to support resilient energy systems in refugee camps and other emergency environments.

Responsible agencies should also be planning for the long term. At the ongoing UNFCCC climate summit in Bonn, Germany, representatives of major donors, funding bodies like the UN Green Climate Fund and the World Bank, aid agencies, and recipient countries should lay the groundwork for an international meeting on how to fund and implement these new resilient grid systems. National governments should take complementary steps closer to home. Late last month, for example, U.S. Senators Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) introduced legislation to ensure that federal disaster funding can be used to build more resilient, efficient, clean, and low-cost energy systems.

As extreme weather, conflict, and political upheaval continue to drive tens of millions of people from their homes, the need for power systems that can survive or respond quickly to a disaster will only grow. More creative solutions will be needed to care for those affected.

  • AMY MYERS JAFFE is the David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment and Director of the Energy Security and Climate Change Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
  • LINDSAY IVERSEN is Associate Director for Climate and Resources at the Council on Foreign Relations’ Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies.
  • MORGAN D. BAZILIAN is a Senior (non-resident) Fellow at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the Payne Institute at the Colorado School of Mines.
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