Tree planting project (c) UNHCR T. Maurer Rwanda 2012
© UNHCR T. Maurer Rwanda 2012

Fuel & Energy 101

What is energy and what is a fuel?

Energy is power derived from the use of physical or chemical resources, especially to provide light and heat or to work machines. Types of energy can include biomass energy, renewable energy, solar energy, fossil fuel energy, nuclear energy, etc.

A fuel is a material that stores energy in forms that can be released and used for work or as heat energy. Types of fuel include biomass, charcoal, coal, biogas, ethanol, LPG, solar, etc.

In humanitarian contexts, access to energy and fuels is largely considered to be an intersectional issue that affects individuals, households, and institutions.

What is energy used for in a humanitarian context?

At the individual and household level, energy is used for cooking, boiling water, lighting, heating and cooling homes, and powering appliances like televisions and refrigerators. The collective term for all of these uses is household energy.

Energy also has uses at the institutional level, some of which include refrigeration of vaccines, cooking school meals, lighting in health clinics and schools, street lighting in camps to encourage safe movement, and sustaining certain types of livelihoods such as drying fish, cooking meals for street vendors, and milling wheat or grain.

What are the different types of fuels?

There are numerous fuel types that are used by crisis-affected populations and/or supported by humanitarian organizations. Each fuels comes with its own unique set of opportunities and challenges:

Biomass—Biomass refers to organic material (living or recently living) from plants and animals, including agricultural and municipal solid waste products.1 Wood is still the largest biomass energy resource today, though other sources of biomass include food crops, grassy and woody plants, residues from agriculture or forestry, and the organic component of municipal and industrial wastes. Biomass can be transformed into different forms of bioenergy using low tech and high tech approaches. They can be simply processed into biomass pellets or briquettes or converted to liquid or gas fuels like ethanol through more advanced chemical processes.

Charcoal—Charcoal is light black residue consisting of carbon, or any remaining ash, that results from removing water and volatile contents from animal and vegetation substances during the production process. It is produced by heating wood or other substances in the absence of oxygen.

Coal—Coal is a black, solid, carbon-rich material found underground and is among the most important fossil fuels. In the household energy sector, coal is often used in countries where cooking and heating are combined, particularly in China.

Biogas—Biogas is produced when biomass decomposes in an oxygen-free environment; a process called anaerobic digestion. It is a methane rich gas that can be generated from organic material such as animal and kitchen wastes, as well as some crop residues. For cooking and other thermal household tasks, biogas can be used directly in conventional low-pressure gas burners. Biogas is used for many different applications worldwide. In rural communities, small-scale digesters can provide biogas for single-household cooking and lighting. Large-scale digesters can utilize biogas for electricity production, heat and steam, chemical production, and vehicle fuel.

Ethanol—Ethanol is a clean liquid biofuel that can be made from a variety of feedstocks (biomass that can be converted into biofuels and bioenergy) including sugary materials such as sugar cane, molasses, sugar beet, or sweet sorghum, starchy materials such as cassava (manioc), potatoes, or maize, or cellulostic materials such as wood, grasses, corn stover and other agricultural residues. Many new feedstocks are under development, such as algae, kelp and other wild or non-cultivated crops such as cattails (bulrush).

Kerosene—Kerosene, also called paraffin in some countries, is a liquid product of crude oil with a high energy density. Kerosene is widely used in urban households for cooking, heating, and lighting, but is flammable and causes a high number of fires and deaths each year. Kerosene is sometimes improperly stored in soda bottles leading to accidental poisoning of children.

Liquefied petroleum gas (LPG)—Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) is a clean-burning, portable, sustainable, and efficient fuel. LPG is a co-product of natural gas and crude oil production and usually consists of a mixture of propane and butane for standard heating and cooking purposes. Its unique properties make it a versatile energy source—it is a multi-purpose energy with many applications, is portable, and can be used virtually anywhere in the world.

Pellets or Briquettes/cakes—Raw biomass can sometimes come in forms that are not as convenient to burn such as sawdust, wood chips, grass, urban waste wood, agricultural residues. Processing the biomass into pellets or briquettes allows the biomass to burn more efficiently and evenly. Pellets or briquettes/cakes made from biomass such as agricultural waste, recycled materials, or other materials such as saw dust by applying pressure, heat and a binding agent (such as starch) to loose biomass residues or waste, to produce compact solid blocks of different sizes and shapes. They can be made manually or with a machine and often include a drying step to get rid of the water so that briquette is strong enough to be used in the same burning capacity as charcoal. There are two different types of briquettes; carbonized fuel briquettes which are made from waste materials that have undergone carbonization (the conversion of organic substances into carbon in the absence of oxygen) such as charcoal dust; and non-carbonized fuel briquettes which are produced from waste materials that are not carbonized (the raw material is partially decomposed and then dried_ such as saw dust and waste paper. Pellets are produced by compressing (known as densifying) organic material, generally some form of woody biomass, under intense pressure.

Solar—A solar cooker is a device that uses the energy of direct sunlight to heat or cook food. They broadly fall into two categories; passive or active. Active solar technologies include the use of photovoltaic panels and solar thermal collectors to harness the energy; passive solar technologies including orienting the technology towards the sun and selecting materials with thermal mass or light dispersing properties. There are many different kinds of solar cookers but most follow the same basic principle of concentrating sunlight, converting light to heat or trapping the heat.

Why is energy and fuel important in a humanitarian setting?

Most food aid distributed to refugees needs to be cooked. Refugees have to consider either collecting or purchasing a fuel, such as firewood to cook their meals. They also require light to move around safely in the dark; children need light to study, and some displaced communities require heat to keep warm during winter. Without access to this energy, displaced populations—women and children, in particular—are exposed to health and safety risks. Women often spend several hours collecting firewood each day and are exposed to risk of harm, including physical and sexual violence. Collecting firewood also takes time from other productive activities such as education, agriculture, and childcare. Children are often taken along with their mothers to collect firewood, which thereby exposes them to risks as well. It also means that they must miss out on school.2

The type of energy used has huge health implications; women who use biomass fuels for cooking, heating, and lighting are exposed to particulate matter emissions from the smoke which can result in various respiratory illnesses. The cost of the fuel in urban areas might also be higher, putting greater financial strain on refugee households.3

Sources of energy and fuel are often very limited for displaced populations. For example, a heavy reliance on firewood for energy needs leads to over collection, which in turn largely contributes to environmental degradation. A lack of access to energy resources contributes to tension amongst displaced populations and the host communities in rural camp settings. In urban areas, host families often receive a subsidy for food provision, but not for cooking fuel—this increases their household's costs and can cause or increase tension amongst refugees and the host families.4

Access to energy, like electricity, in refugee camps can be used to improve safety and living conditions. Lighting could be provided at night so that refugees can safely access toilets and move around the camp. Children can also study in the evenings. Electricity is needed in health centers to refrigerate and store crucial medication and vaccines. It can also be used to set up computer centers so that refugees can communicate and build on their employable skills.5


2 Global Strategy for SAFE ACCESS TO FUEL AND ENERGY (SAFE). UNCHR Strategy 2014-2018

3 WFP SAFE Handbook (2012).

4 WFP SAFE Handbook (2012).

5 Global Strategy for SAFE ACCESS TO FUEL AND ENERGY (SAFE). UNCHR Strategy 2014-2018