Practical Action conducts research into the energy needs of displaced people, collaborates with a range of partners to deliver an innovative programme of work to meet these needs, and advocates for the sorts of technological solutions and policy interventions that will help deliver safe and sustainable energy access in times of emergency and beyond.

Energy in emergencies

Refugees gather near the gas distribution centre in Goudebou camp, Burkina Faso
Refugees gather near the gas distribution centre in Goudebou camp

Refugees are among the world's most vulnerable groups. The number of displaced people now exceeds 65 million globally, and, in times of emergency, these people are often left without access to modern energy services. This means that many people live without heating, clean cooking solutions, and electricity; finding solutions by whatever means possible, including collecting firewood and using old batteries. This is despite the fact that sustainable, affordable household energy products are increasingly available worldwide. Unfortunately, these products are often not accessible in refugee camps, where they could help make people's lives significantly less challenging.

Sustainable Humanitarian Energy ServicesSustainable Humanitarian Energy Services: Inclusive participation, lessons learnt, and paths forward

In this paper, we explore how best practices and lessons from other development sectors can inform the delivery of energy in humanitarian settings.We suggest that energy service programmes in refugee camps can be more successful if organizations implement participatory, bottom-up, and market-based approaches. We highlight seven mechanisms and examples of best practice that implementers can adopt while responding to the energy needs of refugees.

Download (PDF: 7.78MB)

Opportunities for innovation and scale-up

The role of sustainable sources in providing energy services for refugees is a critical area for innovation and scale-up; whether through solar street lights, solar lanterns, or improved cookstoves. However, while the focus within refugee camps is often on solar energy, there are increasing opportunities for the use of: biomass and biogas, wind generators, micro-hydro, geothermal, LPG, and waste recycling. Similarly, renewable mini-grids and hybrid systems are increasingly proposed as solutions that can be supplied quickly and efficiently in humanitarian settings.

There is an urgent needs for multi-year humanitarian planning that addresses the long-term energy service needs of vulnerable people. To this end, Practical Action is delivering innovative research to understand the extent of the problem, identify challenges, and propose potential solutions.

Practical Action's role 

Men congregate around solar panels in the Goudebou camp in Burkina Faso
Small-scale solar products are used in the Goudebou camp

Practical Action works with the humanitarian sector to enable positive collaboration between emergency responders and the energy for development community. Our portfolio of work brings together technical energy innovations, refugee community participation, and interactive humanitarian research. Our projects focus on understanding:

  • How refugees use energy and what value they place on energy in their daily lives;
  • What technologies and alternative business models are suitable for refugees and displaced populations;
  • How energy provision has the potential to improve social cohesion with host-country communities;
  • How energy is connected to business and labour ecosystems, and how benefits within communities are distributed;
  • How the potentially challenging issues of technology use, political commitments, actors in the supply chain, and beneficiaries in the production and trade of wood and charcoal exist within the humanitarian space.

If you would like to know more about our ambitions and activities around energy in emergency contexts, please contact Sarah Rosenberg-Jansen, Head of Humanitarian Energy on 

All statistics, facts and figures are taken from MEI publication Heat, Light and Power for Refugees: Saving Lives, Reducing Costs

  • Our projects
  • Humanitarian energy facts and figures
  • Displaced Energy +

    Displaced Energy aims to bring traditions of qualitative, human-centered research to bear on the way that the humanitarian community understands and responds to needs for light, heat and power in contexts of forced displacement. To this end, Practical Acton Consulting has worked with Edinburgh University to conduct extensive qualitative research in Burkina Faso and Kenya in the refugee camps of Kakuma and Goudoubou. Through a series of observational and interview methods, three reports have been produced to outline in great detail the real lived experiences and how energy is used by displaced people. Read More
  • Renewable Energy for Refugees (RE4R) +

    Through RE4R, Practical Action and UNHCR, supported by the IKEA Foundation, will help refugees in Rwanda and Jordan (and their host communities) access finance, training, technology and expertise to facilitate renewable energy powering homes, schools, health clinics and businesses. The project will bring clean renewable energy for lighting, cooking and powering tools and appliances, allowing entrepreneurs to flourish and move from reliance on aid to economic independence. The situations refugees in Jordan and Rwanda find themselves in are vastly different, but the project will demonstrate how access to energy can transform people’s lives, whatever their circumstances Read More
  • Moving Energy Initiative +

    Practical Action is working with Energy4Impact, Chatham House, UNHCR and the Norwegian Refugee Council on the Moving Energy Initiative (MEI), an innovative project that seeks to meet the energy needs of displaced people in a safe, sustainable manner. We are working with humanitarian agencies and donors to change policies and practices based on evidence from practical projects. We engage with the private sector to design and implement innovative market-based solutions in refugee camps. MEI is also developing evidence through original research and the demonstration of new approaches tried and tested in camps and host communities. Finally, to improve energy access among both refugee and hosting community we cooperate with host governments and national NGOs. Practical Action is currently leading the MEI programme to unlock energy access markets in the Sahel region of Burkina Faso and producing the first report unveiling actual energy needs of refugees. Read More
  • Energy and Forced Displacement Project +

    Practical Action and the University of Edinburgh are collaborating on a project exploring 'Energy and Forced Displacement: a qualitative approach to light, heat and power in refugee camps', in Burkina Faso and Kenya. In partnership with the MEI and UNHCR, this project focusses on how to deploy and implement appropriate sustainable energy solutions for heating, cooking, lighting,water and sanitation, communication and other purposes in refugee camps. It aims to improve access to sustainable energy for displaced persons' domestic and commercial purposes, and safe, reliable, secure, and more efficient energy solutions for the administrative and public service facilities. The project will inform and influence the sustainable energy policies, priorities and operations of donors, host governments, and national and international organisations.
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  • Displaced people are energy poor +

    Over 89% of people living in camps have no access to electricity and 80% rely on firewood for cooking. 61% of households in Dadaab in Kenya, the world’s largest refugee settlement, rely on no more than a torch for lighting. Households in the Goudoubo camp in Burkina Faso need over 100 kilos of firewood per month for cooking alone. They receive only 12 and must buy or gather the rest.
  • The cost of energy is high for displaced people +

    The average displaced household will spend at least $200 per year on fuel, which amounts to $2.1 billion each year worldwide. Households in Dadaab spend 24% of their overall household income on firewood, or $6.2 million, each year. In 2011, UK households spent 4% of their income on energy. In 2014-15, the electricity bill to the UNHCR for the Zaatari camp in Jordan was $8.7 million, which led the agency to cut improvised connections for refugee households and businesses.
  • The health and safety toll of energy poverty is alarmingly high +

    Each year it is likely that some 20,000 displaced people die prematurely due to the pollution from indoor fires for cooking. In Uganda, 44% of refugee households admitted to skipping meals because they did not have enough fuel to cook with.
  • Sustainable solutions are within reach +

    Using the best available green technologies for households could save lives, reduce Co2 emissions by 11.38 million tons per year and radically improve living standards.
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Sarah Rosenberg-Jansen's blog posts

  • Energy Supporter Objects – The Variety of Energy Technologies and Uses in Refugee Settings
    A blog authored by Sarah Rosenberg-Jansen and Anna Okello. December 2017. A ‘missing link’ in humanitarian energy access Energy is a critical need for refugees and displaced people: millions of displaced people do not have access to energy, and humanitarian agencies and refugees themselves struggle to work with complex energy technology systems and products – as we discuss in the Moving Energy Initiative Report. Recognising this, Practical Action has developed an extensive portfolio of work on energy in humanitarian settings. This […]
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