MANILA — Humanitarian agencies operate in some of the most challenging, resource-poor settings. Often off-grid, they turn to generators for power and travel long distances for the most basic supplies — which can be expensive and is contributing to environmental degradation, according to a new research paper by the Moving Energy Initiative analyzing aid agencies’ energy consumption in the field.
Aid agencies spent 5 percent of their expenses on fuel to power their operations and for transportation in 2017 — an equivalent of $1.2 billion. Much of their energy sources are also classified as “dirty.” In Kenya, one of the countries surveyed, along with Burkina Faso and Jordan, seven aid agencies spend close to $4 million a year on diesel and petrol to power their generators. In Jordan, diesel for trucks used to transport supplies such as clean water to refugee camps can contain high levels of sulphur, whose emissions reach 9,300 parts per million, according to a cited U.N. Environment Programme report. This is far above the European standard of 10 parts per million.
“[Aid agencies] tend to rely on what has been done previously, and in humanitarian operations that normally means relying on expensive and inefficient diesel-fueled energy systems.”— Owen Grafham, department manager of the energy, environment and resources of the Moving Energy Initiative
Most aid agencies, however, lack the necessary policies to track and manage their energy use. Only 8 out of 21 organizations surveyed said they train or advise staff on mindful energy consumption, such as switching off their computers or office lights after a day’s work. Some of these trainings can be selective — for instance, focusing only on teaching drivers how to save on fuel. There also doesn’t seem to be a structured system for how aid agencies collect and use information on their energy use.
“Energy is not a core competence in the humanitarian system. Few staff have technical skills or a mandate to look at energy … [and they] tend to rely on what has been done previously; and in humanitarian operations, that normally means relying on expensive and inefficient diesel-fueled energy systems,” said Owen Grafham, department manager of the energy, environment and resources of the Moving Energy Initiative and one of the authors of the report.
An additional issue is agencies’ lack of capital to invest in renewable energy, with most operating on a yearly budget. There can also be a lack of incentive for aid agencies to be mindful of their energy utility. In several cases in Kenya and Burkina Faso, the authors found aid agencies rely on fuel provided by UNHCR, which is purchased in bulk. But since they don’t pay for this fuel, this leaves them little reason to be conscientious in its usage, authors suggest.
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The report offers some recommendations for how aid agencies can save on fuel costs and reduce their energy footprint. Apart from monitoring energy usage, aid agencies should also improve their capacity by hiring people with an energy background and by creating partnerships with organizations that understand energy systems and have the capacity to implement energy solutions, such as private sector energy providers.
Aid agencies can also start changing mindsets in adopting solar or exploring cleaner energy options. For example, in refugee camps, aid agencies may be reluctant to adopt alternative energy sources thinking it impractical given refugee camps aren’t permanent. But a given refugee camp exists, on average, for 18 years, according to the report.
While upfront costs for switching to solar and other cleaner forms of energy are likely high, aid agencies save in the long term. In Azraq refugee camp in Jordan, the installation of a 3.5 megawatt solar farm is helping UNHCR save $2 million a year, according to the report. Once it is upgraded to 5 megawatts and operating in full capacity, the plant is expected to increase UNHCR’s savings. Expected to cover 70 percent of the camp’s energy needs, the plant will also help reduce carbon emissions.
Getting financing can be tricky, however. The solar plant project involved mixing legacy assets from humanitarian aid funding and capital from the IKEA Foundation. The Saudi Fund for Development provided additional funds to upgrade the plant in September 2018.
The report suggests donors consider requiring aid agencies to provide data on their energy cost projections in their budgets, and outline their strategies to better manage consumption. Host governments could also ask agencies for information on how they plan to reduce their carbon footprint in their operations in-country.
“Coming out with strong messages and policies now could prevent reputational damage later, particularly as international attention increasingly focuses on the efficiency of aid and the footprint … of international aid operations.”— Owen Grafham, Moving Energy Initiative
Grafham said aid agencies should commit “at the highest level” to reducing their energy footprint under the “do no harm” principle. Not only does it save money that can then be diverted for core humanitarian response, but it’s also their moral obligation.
“Coming out with strong messages and policies now could prevent reputational damage later, particularly as international attention increasingly focuses on the efficiency of aid and the footprint — including the emissions intensity — of international aid operations, not least as world leaders gather to discuss climate change this week at COP24,” Grafham said.
The first step to rationalizing energy use, he said, is understanding how much aid agencies are consuming, for what purposes are they using the energy, and how much are they paying for it.
Update, Dec. 17, 2018: This article has been updated to clarify the sulphur contained in diesel used by aid agencies in Jordan is way above the European standard of 10 parts per million sulphur diesel, and that UNHCR’s savings from the solar farm plant in Azraq are expected to increase if upgraded to 5 megawatts.