Alvin Baez / REUTERS 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.

How Mini-Grids Can Power Disaster Recovery

New Energy Technologies and the Future of Humanitarian Aid

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 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.

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