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Solar Microgrids Deliver Multiple Wins for Refugee Camps

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  • Jun 3, 2020

Non-polluting, cost-effective, and mercifully quiet, solar microgrids may make the dirty, noisy, and expensive fossil-powered generators that are ubiquitous in humanitarian relief efforts a thing of the past—a gift both for traumatized asylum seekers and cash-strapped aid organizations. 

Case in point, reports Microgrid Knowledge, is the recent deployment of such a system in a 20-bed pop-up solar medical ICU established at a camp for asylum seekers in Mexico. Built and delivered by Footprint Project, a non-government organization that “focuses on providing clean energy in disaster areas,” the microgrid system arrived in a “six-by-twelve-foot aluminum frame cargo trailer, with batteries, inverters, and charge controls inside.” The unit, which was entirely crowdfunded, “includes 11 kWh of batteries in the trailer and a 4-kWh battery bank in the medical ICU.” The trailer and an administrative tent are powered by additional solar systems. 

The microgrid has effectively replaced a 20-kW fossil fuel generator, writes Microgrid Knowledge. The system is saving the camp about US$50 per day, according to Footprint Project Director Will Heegaard. But as a side benefit, the tendency of people who rely on microgrids to almost unconsciously reduce their power usage could turn out to be a financial boon for cash-strapped aid organizations. 

Arriving at the camp, Heegaard and his staff “learned that the only load they couldn’t power with their clean energy was the heating, ventilating, and air conditioning system (HVAC), which is a ‘huge power hog’.” Nimble on the ground, the Footprint Project team “added mini split heat pumps to help cool the clinic and lower the amount of time the main HVAC system would be required,” Microgrid Knowledge writes.

“Half the battle is efficiency,” Heegaard explained. “If you increase the efficiency…you don’t need such a big power system.” And avoiding large systems—which are hardly the best fit for the fluctuating demands of humanitarian aid—will mean reduced costs.

Heegaard has direct experience with the down side of inefficient fossil power—the original generator at the Mexico camp melted down shortly after his team’s arrival. “It’s a big challenge,” he said. “We see this a lot. Aid organizations spend $5,000 to $10,000 on a generator, run it non-stop and spend money on fuel, and then the generator breaks. They are not meant to run 24/7.”

Along with the cost savings, the microgrid system is also boosting spirits at the camp.

“If we can be as green as reasonably possible, that is one small win for a group of people who have endured a lifetime’s worth of losses,” said paramedic Blake Davis, director of operations for Global Response Management, which operates the camp. “The people stuck in this camp need to live in horrible conditions while awaiting a chance at a better life in the U.S. Reducing the diesel exhaust particulates they are inhaling is one less health risk they need to worry about.”

The team can also say goodbye to that typical constant generator noise. “There is a calming effect when we are running off solar, the AC is on, and we are able to work in peace,” said Davis.

The Mexico camp was Footprint Project’s first pandemic-related solar microgrid project, but it likely won’t be the last. “As we witness all the supply and domino effects of COVID-19, economically and socially, it can be powerful to have examples of projects that show the future of what humanitarian aid can be,” Heegaard said.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jun 3, 2020

“Half the battle is efficiency,” Heegaard explained. “If you increase the efficiency…you don’t need such a big power system.” 

This is a great lesson, especially applicable in this type of a set up where the goal isn't necessarily long-term infrastructure but providing what is needed where it's needed now. 

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