Energy Efficiency in Humanitarian Infrastructure - A Practitioners Guideline

From energypedia

Background of these Guidelines

The findings presented here are based on the desktop and field assessment of the humanitarian infrastructure in Ethiopia’s Gambella region by the consultants. Nevertheless, these findings and recommendations have been generalised to be easily applicable to any humanitarian situation in Ethiopia or elsewhere with a similar context and climate. For further information on the general energy situation in Ethiopia, read here.

Energy Efficiency TIER-Approach

The analysis of energy efficiency options in humanitarian infrastructures is critical because energy supply is usually scarce and expensive in these locations. Actions for saving energy are shown in the following tiered approach:

TIER 1 Measurement of energy consumption is the first intervention to undertake. It is a prerequisite for all interventions because what cannot be measured cannot be improved.
TIER 2 Next, energy conservation measures – often referred to as behavioural change - shall be implemented. Turning off appliances when they are not in use, closing doors and windows while running air conditioning, and switching off electric boilers when they are not in use are good examples.
TIER 3 Once the previous points have been implemented, energy efficiency options associated with technological change can be considered like improving thermal efficiency of buildings or establishing procurement standards for energy efficient appliances. The objective is to reduce the energy consumption for a given service or level of activity.
TIER 4 After contemplating and implementing the previous steps, renewable energy (RE) sources shall be considered. In this way, the new green power supply can result in significate cost-effectiveness, as it would be introduced into a pre-existing optimised power system.

With a higher TIER, the amount of the necessary investments and the complexity of the measures also increase. Traditionally, RE power plants have been significantly more expensive and complex to implement than the interventions in Tier 2 and Tier 3. However, RE power plants, particularly solar PV power plants, have dramatically reduced in cost in the past decade. This, coupled with innovative financing and plug-and-play solutions, has transformed the market. Today Tiers 2, 3, and 4 could be easily re-grouped into a holistic solution in which energy conservation, technology upgrades, demand-response management, and renewable energy sources are comprehensively addressed and in terms of each factor’s impact on the other. Moreover, each kWh of electricity saved through energy efficiency measures represents a saving that can be directed to the core activity of humanitarian activities, thus resulting in a higher efficiency budget expenditure and greater operational results.

Energy Efficiency and Safety Guidelines

The following five fields of actions, which shall be undertaken to improve energy efficiency and reduce electrical and fire hazards in humanitarian infrastructures, are distinguished:

  • Power Generation
  • Power Distribution
  • Appliances
  • Buildings
  • Behavioural Changes

Power Generation

Humanitarian organisations are encouraged to develop a road map for establishing a centralised energy monitoring system that will track energy consumption in their facilities. With internet connection, smart energy meters help collect data. Otherwise simple digital energy meters can be installed at the main electrical boards.Plug energy meters are also useful to check the power consumption of individual appliances. The operators shall record periodic energy readings and the instant power consumption can be used to find energy-intensive appliances.

Although use of diesel generators shall be reduced as much as possible because of their high operation costs and carbon emissions, it is not always possible to avoid them. Proper sizing of diesel generators is important to avoid energy losses, increased emissions and accelerated wearing. Oversizing diesel generators is a common malpractice, especially in humanitarian settings. It is often done because power needs are highly variable in these contexts – e.g., operations can increase due to a sudden migration flow and rapid response is needed. To solve this problem a few simple things can be done like setting a basis for correct sizing with energy meters or choosing diesel generators on an individual basis depending on the peak load.

Sharing grid connection costs among different organizations is an effective approach

In countries where the utility grid’s energy production has a substantive share of RE and the utility tariff is advantageous, humanitarian infrastructures are encouraged to consider connecting to the centralized national grid. Sharing the connection costs (extension of the medium voltage lines, installing a transformer and droplines) with nearby humanitarian organisations, shops, and institutions could dramatically cut the connection costs. Requesting for a larger, shared transformer is cheaper than installing a smaller, dedicated one.

Power Distribution

Power generation upgrades – such as the installation of a solar PV power plant, a new diesel generator or the connection to the centralized national grid – tend to be considered the solution for all the power supply challenges among humanitarian actors. Unfortunately, in some cases, the electrical network may not be able to distribute the power supplied by the grid transformer or the PV plant, making power generation upgrades useless or even dangerous. Some users will still be unable to use their appliances because power gets dissipated across the cables and connections, making the voltage drop.

Electrical circuits are often run with the cable sizes that are available in-situ, rather than being sized according to power capacities and cable distances, which often cause fires.To avoid extremely dangerous set-ups of the electrical infrastructure, electrical installations should not be done by non-qualified personnel at all. Some safety instructions for electrical installations are given in the attached manual.


Purchasing efficient electrical appliances is of paramount importance in humanitarian sites, where power supply is generally limited and expensive. However, a correct design, installation, operation and maintenance of appliances are equally if not more impactful. The first thing to do when assessing energy efficiency improvements is to find out what the main energy consumption drivers and the sources of easily addressable energy waste are. In hot regions, air conditioning accounts for up to 90 % of the electricity bills of humanitarian infrastructures. Economical and energy-saving devices, the right refrigerant, correct installation and regular maintenance is a simple way to save money and energy.

Also appliances for water heating, cooking and water pumping are used in the humanitarian field and can be operated sparingly through efficient use and professional installation. You will find more detailed information and advices for an energy efficient use the attached manual.


It is crucial to improve the airtightness and insulation of buildings. Most of the buildings in humanitarian infrastructures are made of bricks, stone masonry or Hollow Concrete Blocks (HCB) and covered by uninsulated metal roofs. They do not have thermal insulation layers or cavities inside and thus do not adequately insulate the rooms, which increases energy demand for space cooling.

Straw/clay roof insulation technique is a low-cost and sustainable roof insulation

Better insulation can be achieved with relatively simple measures, such as planting more trees for shade, painting the exterior walls white, or installing door sweeps. In addition, of course, the choice of building materials and the insulation of windows and doors also influence the energy efficiency of the building.

Behavioural change

Part of the energy losses can be avoided by simply changing some unconscious, poor habits that negatively impact energy efficiency. The two everyday bad habits causing most energy waste across humanitarian agencies and actors and are related to the use of air conditioning:

  1. Doors and windows are kept open in air-conditioned spaces
  2. A/C is left on in accommodations during the day when people are at work

Setting up an energy monitoring framework with a simple energy meter provides the necessary energy consumption baseline. Once this has led to an understanding of one's own behavior, intervention options can be identified in a second step. In a final step, content and implementation options need to be identified.


As has been shown, the indispensable first step in saving energy is energy monitoring of daily electricity consumption with energy meters. After that, a lot can be achieved with little effort. Changing ingrained behavior costs nothing and often brings the fastest results. Technological change and the implementation of renewable enegies require the greatest effort and the highest costs and are therefore the last measures to be applied. Read the complete guidelines for detailed descriptions of energy saving methods and other research results from the Ethiopian humanitarian context.


GIZ's Energy Solutions for Displacement Settings (ESDS) project cooperate with UNHCR to enhance the access to sustainable energy in displacement contexts, and the Energypedia page has been created to share learnings across various practitioners to spur the development of clean energy solutions.

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