Power to the people

Two students, Alexander Angelopoulos and Sam Kellerhals, are providing refugees with the means to contact family, as well as offering free access to education and information.

Alexander Angelopoulous
Alexander Angelopoulous (Photo © Project Elpis / Peter Sorentin)

Backed by the University’s alumni-funded grants for student projects, the pair have gathered a team of undergraduates to create clever solar-powered charging stations that are making life brighter for displaced people stranded in Greece.

For most of us a mobile phone is a handy gadget we’ve become accustomed to. But for refugees located hundreds of miles from home, a phone is literally a lifeline. Mobiles offer the only realistic way of contacting family and friends, and of tracing lost relatives.

Across crowded refugee camps, however, a task as ordinary as charging a phone presents a considerable challenge. Desperate to reach loved ones, refugees gather around individual sockets, often for hours at a time. Risking electrocution, some camp residents have also taken to tampering with lamp-post power leads in an attempt to charge directly from exposed cables.

On learning of the refugees’ plight, University of Edinburgh Environmental Sciences undergraduates Alexander Angelopoulos and Sam Kellerhals were determined to make a difference. In 2016 Project Elpis – named after the Greek goddess of hope – united a multi-disciplinary team from across the University. Work then began on designing and creating what would become the project’s innovative solar hubs solution.

Rolling out an ambitious project like Elpis demanded plenty of planning and research. Rising way above their primary charging function, the team’s solar hubs would be providing also a variety of educational and information resources. Hubs’ on-board computers were pre-programmed by the team and field work, carried out during the University’s Innovative Learning Week, ensured every camp’s computer would offer useful, relevant resources.

“It was crucial to understand the demographics and dynamics of each camp,” says Sam Kellerhals, “so that the content of books and PDFs could be tailored to residents’ needs. Splitting our resources, we visited camps in the mainland, the island of Lesvos and the northern region of Greece. Coordinating installations from a distance was challenging, but we all worked ‘as one’, and got the very most from Innovative Learning Week.”


In locations where access to electricity is severely limited, just one solar hub charges up to 120 mobile devices per day.

Aside from planning and research, realising the project’s aims required significant funding. Kick-starting activity, the team had successfully crowdfunded its initial target of £4,000, a great achievement in itself. But with each hub costing £850 to produce, Sam, Alexandros and their team knew success depended on further financing. An application was made to the University’s Innovation Initiative Grants (IIGs) scheme.

Financed entirely by alumni donors, IIGs provide backing for bold new initiatives across teaching, research and student experience. Applications for IIGs are numerous and standards are high. But by demonstrating the compelling impact of the solar hubs, both for end-users and for those immersed in the implementation journey, Project Elpis was recognised as a worthy grant recipient. An award to the tune of £3,750 meant the students could forge ahead with further installation plans, and with the data-gathering activities crucial to future expansion.

“Without IIG support we wouldn’t have been able to complete the second round of piloting,” says Sam. “That called for six device installations across five Greek locations. Funding enabled that. It gave us the means to gather feedback, validate the concept and meet our goals within the planned timeframe.”

An international success story, Project Elpis is making life that bit easier for those living in refugee camps across Greece. In locations where access to electricity is severely limited, just one solar hub charges up to 120 mobile devices per day. That adds up to full batteries, education and information for 3,600 people each month. Hubs have been embraced by camp residents and welcomed also by local communities, who themselves are often operating within limited resources.

The future? Plans are in place to introduce hubs in strategic locations like ports and detention/accommodation centres. It’s hoped also that the project will be extended to other European nations, as well as to countries in the Middle East.


Financed entirely by alumni donors, IIGs provide backing for bold new initiatives across teaching, research and student experience.

A student-led innovation, Project Elpis is placing University of Edinburgh expertise at the heart of one of Europe’s most pressing challenges. And as a collaborative initiative, the project is uniting students, volunteers, tech companies and a host of Greek NGOs.

“Underpinning it all,” says Alexander, “was our Innovation Initiative Grant. On the practical side, ordering components, assembling, testing, shipping and installing the units wouldn’t have been possible without our IIG award.”

Project Elpis perfectly demonstrates what’s possible when University-learned expertise combines with donor funding. Thanks to generous alumni donations, Innovation Initiative Grants are able to fund projects like Elpis: projects encapsulating the University’s spirit, championing its international ambitions and making tangible social impacts.


To learn more about how IIGs are supporting initiatives like Project Elpis, visit:

Student Experience Grants