We need to talk “Energy”

“Houston, we have a problem. Our energy systems are failing. Our systems are shutting down, we are losing communications and our lives are in danger”  If such a message were to be sent from the International Space Station, the CEOs of NASA and other space agencies would be tasking their best people to solve the issue. In the aid sector, NGOs and UN Agencies are approaching their own “Houston, we have a problem” moment as the current methods of delivering electricity to aid programmes in many locations is not fit for purpose. In this article, I want to put the power issue firmly on the radar for senior decision makers. I will explore the challenges the aid sector are facing now and what we should do to change things for the better.

The story of field power in “three problems”: In developed nations, the management of power is highly regulated. In the UK, laws were passed to make it illegal for home owners to install or modify circuits in their homes unless they hold certain qualifications. The laws were brought in to prevent unskilled people installing dangerous cabling thus  putting lives at risk. In developing nations, the legal framework to enforce standards do not exist in many countries. The combination of low skills and poor quality electrical components can be regarded as the perfect storm now presenting serious issues to the aid sector. Here is the overview in three problems.

Problem #1 – Danger: Probably our most significant issue is that electricity is very dangerous. I have been working in the sector for 20 years, and over that period I have built up a large library of photos of electrical issues which presents extreme danger to people. The photo to the left shows fire damage in a field office where the cables were simply too small to carry the electrical load to power the office infrastructure and air conditioning systems. The cabling caught fire as they became overloaded resulting in more widespread damage as the fire spread from the cables to other areas of the office.

In addition to the fire risk, poor circuit design leads to a direct threat to the safety and security of  staff. Over the past decade, dangerous electrical systems have led to the deaths of three aid workers due to electrocution.

Safety and security is also indirectly affected by unstable power supplies in some of the insecure places where aid organisations operate. In Central African Republic, at a remote site, one aid agency lost most of its communications ability due to a power surge from the generator. The VSAT (Satellite Internet)  and a few satellite phones and radios were destroyed.  With no means to charge up the 2 remaining functional satellite telephones, it was just a matter of time before the staff at the remote site would lose its ability to communicate with the outside world completely.

Problem #2 – The high cost of doing business: In addition to our safety concerns, we must also address how the unstable power supplies affect the efficiency of aid operations. Firstly, there are tangible costs to organisations as damage caused by electrical fires. But physical damage is not limited to fires. Technology is often permanently damaged through power surges. The sudden loss of power (due to unplanned power cuts) is causing major problems with IT and communications systems every day in many sites.

There are also indirect costs as loss of power will cause IT issues. This often leads to loss of data, forcing staff to redo work already completed. Where infrastructure fails completely for longer periods of time, a whole team of people may not be able to work, especially when they are staff who need to access online cloud based applications.

Black, not green energy

Problem #3 – The negative environmental impact: In remote locations where the aid sector is operating, the main source of power is from a generator. It goes against our “Do no harm” ethos as we are definitely doing harm to the environment every day. Our generators pollute and makes noise, which is not great for the communities where we are supposed to be providing help. In addition to this, when our generators reach the end of their operational lives, we are just dumping them on communities and expect the local population  to deal with the waste.

Our approach to selecting, installing generators and then running them is often inadequate. I have seen plenty of examples where we have oversized or undersized a generator for a site. Where three phase generators have been purchased, thy have not been optimised to the electrical load (known as “load balancing”). We do not maintain the generators properly or run them for too long. All of these issues will shorten the life of the generator which in the longer term costs the aid sector more money and increases the negative environmental footprint.   

In places where we have attempted to implement Solar Energy systems, they have been designed so poorly that they simply stop working after a period of time and all benefits are lost.

Who owns power? In many organisations, the responsibility for electricity sits with local teams. This means that the responsibility for electricity often gets mixed up within the wide range of services managed by Administration, Facilities or Logistics staff. Staff within these functions do not have electrical expert knowledge. At more senior levels in organisations, the provisioning of power is just taken for granted. “Somebody owns it locally so it’s not on my problem”.  This leads to the fact that there is no strategy for delivery electricity safely responsibly and efficiently. The financial and physical risks presented to organisations will be unnoticed at senior level.

There is also a reluctance at senior levels in the aid sector to change the status quo. In the UN Cluster system, there is not a single cluster taking full ownership of power. The Logistics Cluster will ship generators and components, but do not manage installation and running of power . The Emergency Telecoms Cluster recognises that there is a need to address power, and have formed a working group to explore options, but the scope may be limited to instances where power is needed to support services to communities (see my next point below).

“Technology Services to Communities” a new responsibility: The aid sector is changing. We are starting to see a rapid increase in the way services are provided to the communities we support. Cash transfer programmes is one example where technology is being used to engage communities direct. Technology is also being used in education programmes as well. Where technology is used, power is also needed. There will be an increasing demand for tech in the years ahead and that means we also need to build in the systems needed to power the technology.

An example of such a project is where the aid community builds a network of Wi-Fi hotspots for a refugee or IDP setting. This technology is often used to provide useful information to communities (https://refugee.info is a great example). To access such services the community needs to use technology. This technology needs to be charged – safely.

So, this brings me back to the start. Our current approach to providing electricity is unsafe in many places and not fit for purpose. The aid sector has taken its eye off the ball regarding power but the responsibility to “Do no harm” remains. The alarm bell is ringing! If the aid sector provides power to community projects to the same standard as already provided in aid sector offices, harm is likely to be done. So action needs to be taken now to keep the communities we will support safe.

Action needed: There is a lot of work to be done to change the way we work. It will cost money to change our approach, but are also some quick wins we can get started on which does not cost much. Here are some examples of some of the actions we need to work on.  

  • NGOs and UN Aid Agencies should start to own the provisioning of power at senior level and start to define a safe, clean and renewable energy strategies. A sufficient number of qualified electrical experts should be employed to facilitate the implementation of better electrical systems.
  • Capacity build staff at local level so that they are aware of what a good and safe electrical systems looks like.
  • Encourage a culture of electrical safety where staff know where to report unsafe systems. Resources need to be in place to address issues raised.
  • Review energy consumption at every site. Identify ways to reduce load. Examples include moving to LED lighting and reducing air-con where it’s not needed. Reducing the load means we use smaller generators. This leads to less fuel and less pollution.
  • For locations which completely rely on generators, consider building power storage systems to enable communications and IT to run uninterrupted 24/7. A well-designed circuit will prolong the life of the technology and in the long run will pay for itself as the office might be able to run for longer periods on stored power.
  • For places where the aid organisation has a long term operation, consider switching to 100% renewable power. This can be viable more quickly in extremely remote locations as fuel sometimes need to be transported by organisations to these locations, sometime by air – a very expensive way to run a business!

The time to start is “now”. Renewable solutions do cost money, but we can get started almost immediately through low cost methods such as identifying ways to reduce energy.

Organisations need to collaborate: In addition to the Emergency Telecoms Cluster . Nethope (A technology focused organisation with over 50 NGOs as members) has also formed a working group to advance the take up of renewable energy. The scope of this group is wide-reaching and will be looking at identifying best practices in how NGOs can reduce loads to larger initiatives such as micro-grid solutions where NGOs and local communities can access electricity from a local power system on a share cost basis. By working together the overall cost of providing safe, clean and stable power could be reduced significantly.

By building in safety and quality from the beginning, renewable energy systems will have a maintenance programme. Cost recovery models will incentivise investment. This leads to sustainable installations which will last for years, not only reducing the carbon footprint, but also reducing electrical waste as well.   

The provisioning of electricity for many organisations is not really “core business” so the appetite to act is low.  If NGOs work together, then the ambition every organisation should have to run safe and environmentally clean programmes will become reality a lot quicker than if every organisation tries to do it alone.

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