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Syrian refugee camp in Jordan goes solar

A German-built solar power facility is helping to improve life for residents of the Zaatari Syrian refugee camp and other camps in Jordan through clean energy.
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Umm Khalil, a Syrian who settled in 2012 in the Zaatari refugee camp, now has electricity 14 hours a day in her caravan since power began to be generated through solar panels Nov. 13. In the past, the 80,000 refugees in the Zaatari camp, 53 miles northeast of Amman in Mafraq, suffered regularly from power outages, receiving power through Jordan's electrical system for only six hours a day, which made life extremely difficult in the desert camp.

Umm Khalil told Al-Monitor, “We were suffering. We were not able to save the food in the refrigerators or run fans for cooling the air at noon, with the temperature reaching 40 degrees [104 degrees Fahrenheit] in the camp. Life is very difficult with the lack of electricity supply.”

Al-Monitor attended a press tour in Zaatari on Nov. 13. During that tour, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) declared that electricity is now being generated inside the camp through the largest solar power plant ever to exist in a refugee camp.

The operation is funded by the German government through the German Development Bank. The solar power plant, which cost 15 million euros (roughly $18 million) and is connected to the national grid, will provide renewable and clean energy to residents in the camp as well as those in urban areas around the camp.

Mohammad Hawari, the UNHCR spokesman in Jordan, told Al-Monitor, “The solar power plant, with a maximum capacity of 12.9 megawatts, will allow the UNHCR to increase power supply hours to refugee camps to up to 14 hours. These additional hours will ease the harsh living conditions for the families in the camp and will improve their safety and security, providing them with the possibility of storing food and allowing children to do their homework.”

The plant's work took about six months to be completed; construction works began in April and ended Nov. 13. Jordanian and Syrian workers contributed to its construction and installed 40,000 solar panels.

According to Hawari, “The solar power plant will assist UNHCR in saving approximately 5 million euros [$6 million] a year in electricity bills paid to the electricity company. This amount could be redirected to expand other vital services for Zaatari residents. Other facilities are expected to benefit from the electricity generated by the plant in the near future, such as hospitals, community centers and offices of humanitarian organizations operating in the camp."

Abu Islam, who fled the Syrian civil war in Daraa, told Al-Monitor in regard to the harsh living conditions in the camp, “The availability of electricity for longer hours will alleviate the suffering of refugees and limit the exploitation by [private] power generator owners who control prices, which sometimes exceed $300. Because of this, several refugees in many caravans share one generator in order to save on expensive diesel fuel on which the generator operates.”

Birgitta Siefker-Eberle, the German ambassador to Jordan, said during the Nov. 13 press conference, “Renewable energy and energy efficiency provide great potential for enhancing bilateral cooperation between Jordan and Germany.” She noted that Jordan is developing an ambitious national strategy to diversify the energy sector, and Germany is keen to support Jordan's plans to cover 20% of its renewable energy’s needs by 2025. According to the UNHCR, the solar power plant will also reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more than 13,000 tons per year.

Jordanian Energy and Mineral Resources Minister Saleh al-Kharabsheh told Al-Monitor, “The solar power plant project is in line with the Jordanian energy strategy, which is moving toward clean energy. This plant will reduce the high electricity bill paid by the Jordanian government and will improve the refugees’ living conditions, in addition to supplying electricity to the Jordanian villages surrounding the camp.”

Even before the clean energy operation at Zaatari went online, the Mrajeeb Al Fhood refugee camp in Azraq was using solar energy to produce electricity. The UNHCR had inaugurated in mid-April a solar power plant in the camp with funding from Swedish furniture company IKEA. The plant has a capacity of 2 megawatts that covers the needs of 20,000 Syrian refugees living in around 5,000 housing units in the camp. The plant provides electricity to the camp’s residents for free.

The Zaatari camp was inaugurated on July 29, 2012, across 8,500 dunams (2,100 acres) to accommodate the influx of refugees fleeing the war that erupted in 2011 in Syria. At its peak in 2016, the camp hosted more than 120,000 refugees, before falling to 80,000 in 2017, as refugees migrated to other countries, resettled in other camps in Jordan and possibly returned to Syria. In addition to the Zaatari and Mrajeeb Al Fhood camps, Cyber City in Irbid and a camp at Hadiqa also provide shelter to Syrian refugees.

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