By Allison Archambault
Allison is a is a member of the 2018 GSBI In-Residence accelerator cohort at Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Santa Clara University. This blog post originally appeared in the GSBI August Newsletter. Watch Allison's presentation to the Miller Center community in Santa Clara here.
By the end of the recent GSBI in-residence program, I was feeling energized, appreciative, and – on one question – flummoxed. It was a fleeting, rhetorical question: Was my focus solving poverty or solving climate change? I’m a new apostle of simplified messaging, but on this point, ‘both’ still seems the right answer.
“The poor cannot afford poor solutions,” says social entrepreneur Runa Khan. In an era of climate change, none of us can afford poor energy solutions. Happily, clean energy is now nearly universally the most cost-effective way to generate electricity. We do not need to choose between cheap, high-quality and clean. They are the same.
I work in Haiti, building electricity systems in towns that have never before had grid power. I’m often surprised when people separate energy poverty from climate change. I get a good laugh out of my US clean energy friends when I gently tease, “It’s easier to build a ‘town-sized, solar-powered smart grid in rural Haiti than it is in [Washington, DC / Santa Clara / Insert any major grid-connected city name here].” They know it’s true. Of course, I face different challenges, but building something from scratch is always easier than disrupting the status quo. There is no incumbent infrastructure or utility business model in the towns where I work, so I get to collaborate with local and international partners to think through what the best system could be. Building self-contained off-grid utility systems, we get to face many of the ‘big grid’ challenges on a micro scale. Is 100% clean energy possible? Yes. Is storage essential? For solar microgrids, yes. Are clean energy microgrids exciting elements of resilient power systems of the future? Definitely.
First and foremost, building energy access is about solving poverty. Electricity is not sufficient for prosperity, but it is essential. In rural Haiti, families without electricity are spending 10% of their income on kerosene and candles for lighting. (In the US we generally spend less than 0.5% of our income on lighting.) Around the world, over a billion people have no electricity, with tragic consequences. Without electricity, there is very little opportunity.
Solving energy poverty can also help solve climate change. The two issues are linked. “Sustainable energy is opportunity – it transforms lives, economies and the planet,” reads Sustainable Development Goal 7. That Goal is summarized as “affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.”
Clean energy microgrids can directly reduce CO2 and black carbon emissions by replacing kerosene lamps and diesel generators. If electric cooking pilots are successful, they can also replace charcoal. Though wick-based kerosene lamps emit only modest CO2, they are significant emitters of atmospheric ‘black carbon’, a strong climate warmer.
Clean energy microgrids can also chart the course for grid decarbonization. Ironically, important grid innovation may come from remote villages that have not yet seen electricity. Where there is no incumbent infrastructure, there is an opportunity to build energy systems with today's best technologies and business models. These models that leverage clean energy, storage, smart grid, and customer participation can be adapted to inform the evolving utility business models in established markets. For example, both Homer Energy’s microgrid software tool and SparkMeter’s low-cost smart meters were both initially developed for stand-alone microgrids and are now seeing applications in central grids.
Of course, solving energy poverty will not alone solve the climate change crisis. There are many levers we should be pulling simultaneously, only some of which are addressed by solving energy poverty. Indeed, Project Drawdown‘s list of 100 climate solutions rank “microgrids” a lowly #78. But an integrated electrification approach involves not only microgrids but also rooftop solar (#10), clean cookstoves (#21), LED lighting (#33), and empowering women and girls (#6). Economic development enabled by the arrival of electricity can also influence agriculture, forestry, and many other key solutions.
To be sure, if tackling energy poverty did not also address climate change, it would still be worth doing. Regions with high energy poverty, in general, have had almost no role in causing the current climate crisis. Poor countries should not be saddled with solving global emissions problems, but, because distributed clean energy systems are now cheaper and faster to build than the alternatives, poor countries have the opportunity to leapfrog straight into smart, clean, efficient systems. It just doesn’t make sense to build 20th century power systems in 2018.
Though more and more are getting built, microgrids are not easy yet. From California to Puerto Rico to India, Africa, and Haiti, proponents of microgrids are struggling with technical, participant, and policy challenges. That, to me, is precisely why energy access microgrids are so exciting. Clean energy microgrids are early-stage, but they hold enormous potential. When we solve these challenges and start to mainstream microgrids, we will have made meaningful progress towards solving both energy poverty and climate change.
As images of protests in Port-au-Prince hit the papers in recent days, we haven't seen much discussion about the underlying reliance on fossil fuels, the way fossil fuel subsidies impact rural households, and just how much people are already paying for low-quality, combustion-based energy.
For context, many low-income households in Haiti are already spending 6-10% of their budgets on kerosene and candles for lighting. Increasing kerosene prices by 51%, as was proposed, would have a very real impact on rural households many of which are already struggling in a difficult economy.
The issues of fossil fuel subsidies and how they impact the poor are complex, but one way to mitigate the impact of reduced fuel subsidies would be to increase clean energy use in Haiti.
In our experience, solar-powered electricity systems can deliver less-expensive, higher-quality energy services to homes and businesses in rural Haiti than can diesel, kerosene and candles - with or without the fuel subsidies. In fact, most homes connected to the Les Anglais microgrid are saving 80% of their household energy budget for lighting compared to what they were spending on kerosene and candles before the grid arrived.
Thank you to those who have reached out to us over the past few days. Our team is safe and working hard to expand clean energy access in the countryside.
By Adam Eberwein
The World Cup final is upon us! This year Haiti may be watching from the sidelines but the fanaticism over the past few weeks has been palpable as Brazilian and Argentinian flags draped from rooftops and motorcycles, and a chorus of cheers echoed through town as heroes of ‘futbòl’ scored another goal.
As an energy provider in Haiti, we understand how the provision of electricity for these important games is makes for satisfied customers and contributes to the quality of life of the community at large. While working to repair and reconnect customers to the Les Anglais network over the past year, the town was remarkably patient and understanding of the time it takes to rebuild. There was however, a common anxiety. Time and time again we were asked if there would be electricity in time for the World Cup.
Taking into account the customer demand and coincidental timeline restrictions, we agreed the start of the World Cup would make for a jovial priority milestone for having all customers reconnected. The good news is… we kicked that goal! All Les Anglais customers that were ready (i.e. customer houses physically ready for connection and contracts signed) were reconnected and electricity was flowing by the start of the World Cup on June 14th. This meant across 330 connections, crowds huddled around radios and televisions for each of thrilling game.
EarthSpark is not the only utility that understands events like the World Cup highlight the impact of electricity on a community. Those tuning into the national sports channel saw EdH (Electricity of Haiti) sponsored commercials at halftime. This world event is a rare opportunity for the national electric utility to make the case that paid bills lead to better service, among several key messages. Not unlike us, many government-sponsored energy projects in the north and south appeared to tailor project deadlines to correspond with the beginning of the World Cup.
Though recent rebuilding efforts in Les Anglais have been swift, potentially due in part to this once-every-four-years sporting event, it’s only part of the story. The rebuilding efforts span over many months of hard work as far back the first few weeks after Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
Our most recent challenge in the rebuild was to return our generation system to full output. Previously, with fewer customers, the damaged system’s solar capacity was sufficient to meet lower demands. As we continue to connect more and more customers, the need to achieve full output is unquestionable. We partnered with the government and a local solar company to fully restore the solar array. The shiny modules were commissioned days before the beginning of the World Cup.
As the town celebrates the ups and downs of sports and we near the end of our rebuild, we are reminded of the ever-present need for energy access. Lighting, cooling, mills, pumps, televisions and radio all provide services that are life improving on a daily basis. As the flags get packed away and the cheers fade into memories, we will continue to provide the tools necessary for the community to tune into the games but also for working and growing in Les Anglais.
By Madie Sturgess and Allison Archambault
With lights gradually coming back on across Les Anglais, ground broken for the new microgrid in the neighboring town of Tiburon, and fundraising for future grids underway, we hope our readers can understand how it’s taken us until May to write our first blog post of 2018. We’re excited to share with you our progress over these last several months.
Long-awaited re-launch in Les Anglais
In the slow but steady recovery from Hurricane Matthew, 50 homes and businesses have now been reconnected to the repaired electricity grid in Les Anglais. A team of local electricians are hard at work installing home wiring for the next batch of customers to be re-connected. Residents are eager to re-register for service, and vendors are back in business selling plop plop (energy credits) to those customers with grid connections. In coordination with the Haitian government, we are planning with a local engineering firm to replace damaged racking and solar panels on the PV generation site which will further expand the available electricity output of the system.
“The long wait for repairs has been difficult for everyone. One silver lining was that we were able to incorporate lessons learned into design improvements for the grid. It is now extremely gratifying to be reconnecting customers,” says Adam Eberwein, microgrid operations manager in Les Anglais.
As our electricians reconnect each subnetwork to the grid, we’re careful to consider the impact of the customer load on the battery and inverter system after 18 months of minimal load. A rebuild plan is underway to build back stronger. From solar panels to re-installed home wiring, no single aspect of the microgrid re-launch is complete yet, but – at last – we are finally switching service back on and feeling great momentum.
Ground-breaking for Microgrid # 2
A fishing village located approximately 45 minutes west of Les Anglais, Tiburon has become the second town to partner with EarthSpark for energy access. After an exhaustive RFP process that attracted 25 bids, we’re proud to have contracted Haitian engineering firm DigitalKap to build the Tiburon solar hybrid generation site. DigitalKap broke ground in Tiburon in January. Racking is now complete, and the installation of solar panels is expected to begin next week. Several open issues stand in the way of the new generation system actually powering the homes and businesses of Tiburon. At the time of this writing, the government of Haiti has committed to repairing the town’s distribution network which was damaged by Hurricane Matthew. The legal and regulatory process for microgrids in Haiti is also in flux in a way that jeopardizes EarthSpark’s ability to connect the generation site to the customers.
At the time of project design, the municipalities had the legal authority to grant concessions, but a national decree followed by the establishment of a national regulation body has now introduced a new layer of approval authority which has not yet fully established its processes. With a slow sigh to how progress often happens with some steps forward and some steps backward, we are both frustrated by what feels like a setback and also appreciative of the opportunity to use this grid as a vanguard project in what can become a much-needed clear legal and regulatory process for establishing and operating microgrids in Haiti. Hooray for stakeholder collaboration and ‘de-risking by doing!’
Getting Started on “Starter Grids”
Haiti’s rural south is scattered with rural municipalities, towns, and villages of all sizes. We look forward to a future where reliable electricity is a reality in each community. To start serving towns smaller than Les Anglais and Tiburon, we are in discussions with two small communities near Les Anglais. We have begun fundraising for 2 “starter grids”; small modular grids that can power approximately 50 homes each and can be easily expanded to serve more customers and higher levels of demand once established. From stand-alone solar lanterns and solar home systems for extremely remote households, to ‘large’ microgrids, many shapes and sizes of clean energy solutions can solve energy poverty. Developing a portfolio of these different solutions continues to be central to EarthSpark’s commitment to “proving what is possible” for energy access in Haiti.
Beyond the Les Anglais and Tiburon grids and two ‘starter grids’, we are working towards four additional microgrids that can deliver affordable, reliable, clean electricity to an additional 4 communities within a year. In order to mainstream microgrids in Haiti, it is critical to continue pushing through the processes, clarifying the policies, and building the track record that can become investable for the next 20 grids. At times, finding the stepping stones to our ultimate goal of enabling 80 microgrids in Haiti feels like a leap into the dark, but as the light returns to homes in Les Anglais we're reminded that progress is possible.
By Madie Sturgess
If you walk through Les Anglais today, the greenery is a little more scarce than usual, there are wrecks and ruins between newly rooved homes, and the market is yet to be replenished with its usual wealth of fruits. Hurricane Matthew’s signature remains graffitied across town.
And if you’ve ever walked into La Place (town square), chances are you’ve seen Vlad and his store. Raised in Port-au-Prince, Vladimir, or Vlad as he’s affectionately known, moved to Les Anglais before he finally had the chance to use his certification in technique de refrigeration (refrigeration technique). Saving money from relatives abroad, Vlad finally opened Saint Jacques Shop in 2014. His enterprising mind saw a local need for moto parts, not only saving people a trip into neighboring communes, but also drawing people into Les Anglais. It has since grown to sell food, cosmetics, and other mixed items. Once Enèji Pwòp electrified Les Anglais homes and businesses, Vlad saw the opportunity to grow again. This time he bought a freezer to sell icy cold drinks.
Like so many others, Matthew shattered Vlad’s livelihood. With his roof gone, he lost approximately 75,000 gourdes (approx. $1170) in new inventory, and his family lay home in tatters. Eager to rebuild, Vlad eventually used a small, gasoline generator to run his freezer again. Running for about 16 hours per load, his drinks were never quite cold enough, and the generator, proved costly to fuel. Others resorted to transporting ice from Les Cayes (3 hours away), or running freezers on propane or diesel generators.
As one of the few shops to still offer cool drinks, clientele demand increased faster than he could supply. In May of 2017, Vlad proposed an opportunity with EarthSpark. Our generation system was live, but was waiting for the town to recover before rebuilding our distribution system was possible. Within days of approaching us, Vlad and 2 other local entrepreneurs, became EarthSpark’s first customers since the Hurricane, with their freezers running from our generation site. Vlad’s drinks are icy cold again, his energy bills 40% cheaper, and due to the sheer volume of sales, he’s reduced drink prices.
As EarthSpark continues to rebuild, we remember the scale of change and possibility an electrified town brings. Over the coming weeks technicians and engineers will arrive, and the enthusiasm in Les Anglais is palpable.
Stories like Vlad’s are a reminder that while lights aren’t back on (yet), Les Anglais is not closed for business!
One year ago today, the storm surge from Hurricane Matthew began to pound the shores of Les Anglais, Haiti. Through the night, Matthew would pummel the town – shooting trees, buildings, and debris left to right, then, after an eerily quiet respite as the eye passed, relaunching debris from right to left as the bottom of the storm slowly moved north.
Les Anglais was devastated. Smaller towns and places higher in the mountains even more so. The road had been washed away. Buildings and crops were gone. Almost everyone had lost their homes.
Before the storm, Les Anglais had served as a testing ground for EarthSpark’s novel, nearly 100% solar-powered electricity grid. After the storm hit, electricity was not the priority in Les Anglais; shelter, water purification tabs, food, and health care were all more pressing needs. The electric grid that had served the town had suffered downed power lines and lost about 40% of the solar panels to wind and falling structures. Even had we had the funding to immediately repair the distribution system, repairs would have initially been impossible because, sadly, most clients had lost their homes and businesses and needed to rebuild before electricity could be safely restored.
There's a difference between disaster response and resiliency planning. In our experience, immediately after Matthew, stand-alone solar lanterns and solar home systems were still working, easily deployable, and helpful for the basic needs of lighting and phone charging. The town grid’s solar array was damaged, but it was relatively straightforward to get about half of the array back online. Even without the poles-and-wires distribution system, the solar plus battery storage was able to serve community needs and businesses with higher levels of power directly from the generation site. We are just now starting the process of repairing the distribution system.
This year, the EarthSpark team is watching with heavy hearts as other places get pummeled. We've been spared so far this hurricane season, but our hearts are with those who have been hit by the recent storms. It's awful to see all of the destruction and to know these scenes are going to become more and more common throughout the Caribbean, so it's a good time to work toward real resilience for all of these communities in the face of these climate disasters.
One island over from Haiti, Puerto Rico's power grid is not likely to be restored for many weeks or months. El Puente, a local organization with climate organizing roots is working to get small-scale distributed solar supplies to the families of PR. They’ve established a solar fund and could use your help.
This week in Les Anglais, the EarthSpark team is working with a local Haitian company to take the first step toward rehabilitating our grid’s distribution system, and we plan to have full service re-established soon. Even in our little grid, reconstruction has taken time, but the lesson for us is the more distributed the solar + batteries, the more resilient the system.
Haiti has yet to build energy infrastructure to serve its entire population, and it sounds like Puerto Rico and the other islands recently hit by storms will need to significantly rebuild. In both cases, where there is no incumbent infrastructure there is an opportunity to build new systems that make sense using today's technologies. As climate change drives more intense hurricanes, local, fuel-free infrastructure for critical services can truly empower vulnerable communities.
While community-scale microgrids hold enormous potential to expand energy access across rural Haiti, the process of developing these microgrids is not fully clear and not without risk. The risks can always be overcome, of course, but getting to an investable model for microgrid development is far from clear-cut - or easy!
Legal and Regulatory Risk
Just before former president Michel Martelly left office, he released three decrees related to the electricity sector in Haiti. These decrees have been a cause for debate ever since as they have the potential to completely transform the existing regulatory environment for all aspects of the electricity sector in Haiti. The decrees never fully entered into effect, and, more than a year later, it is unknown if and how these decrees will be implemented. The new president has stated that electricity will be a priority, and there is great potential for President Moïse and his government to unlock microgrid potential for rural Haiti with thoughtful electricity regulation. (More on that here.)
As much as everyone works toward integrated, plug-and-play microgrids, they are not yet the norm. For each grid, it takes several teams worth of effort to locate specialized parts, build custom systems, and employ local electricians to install necessary wiring in customer’s homes. Beyond spinning off SparkMeter, EarthSpark works closely with technology providers to ensure that their products and services will function well in the rugged and remote environment of rural Haiti. It turns out, alas, that there are no "easy parts" to microgrid electrification.
In October of 2016, Hurricane Matthew hit the coast of Haiti. The town of Les Anglais, where EarthSpark’s energy access microgrid is located, was at the center of the storm. It was a 50 year storm 1.5 years into the Les Anglais grid operations. Communication was lost with the Haiti team for a total of three days. After communication was reestablished, the scope of the devastation in the wake of the storm was revealed. 40% of the microgrid’s solar panels were lost in the storm and the distribution system was rendered inoperable. Power electronics and the battery bank managed to survive the storm undamaged. Sadly, much of Les Anglais was destroyed in the hurricane and many lost their homes along with the structure and home wiring required to safely reconnect to grid electricity.
Theft of physical assets and theft of electricity remain risks throughout the lifetime of the infrastructure. 15 cases of electricity theft have occurred since the microgrid launched in 2015. Sadly one of those cases was perpetrated by Enèji Pwòp's own (former) technician. Neither technical nor social approaches can alone solve theft, thus EarthSpark has been using a combination of both community engagement and technology to combat this problem. An energy advisory committee leads community meetings and customer checks, and totalizer meters automatically detect and approximate losses from energy theft, sending alerts in the case of any discrepancies.
Delays in the presidential election cycles caused an ongoing political crisis in Haiti which were not resolved until early 2017. Uncertainty around the national political cycle and outcomes have led to widespread hesitation on the part of international organizations and external funders as well as difficulty in gaining clarity in the regulatory environment. Furthermore, without clarity on the concession process, upholding negotiated concessions can be difficult when new municipal authorities are elected.
“De-risking by Doing”
Though these risks combined may seem overwhelming, microgrids are worth pursuing. All new technologies and new markets face hurdles. With the approach of “de-risking by doing” EarthSpark is methodically pushing through the risks and, seeking all stakeholders' input, working to establish a clear path for widespread microgrid development in Haiti. That is why right now we are pursuing the goal of establishing 3 additional grant-funded microgrids. The next grid is planned to launch in the fishing town of Tiburon, less than an hour’s drive from Les Anglais. The additional two grids will also on Haiti's southern peninsula. With Haiti's new government poised to modernize rural Haiti with thoughtful, microgrid-enabling regulation, these three grids can serve as points of practical collaboration for which the regulation and processes must work. Alongside the work developing the next three grids, our team is also building the plan for the next 20. In the long story of moving microgrids towards market for rural Haiti, we are at an exciting moment of momentum and opportunity.
The community in Les Anglais is slowly starting to rebuild. A recent survey of our customers said about 90% had some housing structure in place – you can read more about that here. One of the most pressing energy needs identified in the survey was phone charging, with over 90% of our customers saying they needed a way to change their phones. Unfortunately, even though we are hard at work planning for reconstruction, we haven’t been able to restore full service yet. However, we do have generation capacity with more than enough power to charge cell phones.
We have started to offer phone charging at the generation site to address community wishes as we get back in the swing of things. Rosane, the Enèji Pwòp Grid Ambassador is managing this. We’re starting slowly at first, just a few hours a day a couple days a week and charging rates in line with the local market and not by the kWh. We may open up charging to other items (laptops, batteries, radios, etc) if there seems to be a need. While what we really want is to be able to restore the same level of service we were providing before, we’re happy we can help out the community in the meantime!
by Wendy Sanassee
It’s been more than 3 months since Hurricane Matthew struck Les Anglais, and the community has started reconstruction by doing whatever possible to get their lives back on track. We thought our supporters would like an update on how the community is faring. The storm severely damaged homes and businesses in Les Anglais. All of Enèji Pwòp’s 450 customers were affected but to differing degrees. To assess the damage to the community and gauge when homes would be rebuilt and ready for connection to the grid, we carried out a door-to-door survey at the end of 2016. We talked to 84% of our customers to assess the level to which they were impacted and gather information on the state of remaining structures, the state of remaining electrical components, and energy access needs in the aftermath of Matthew.
Results indicated that over 85% of customers still had at least part of two rooms and a roof intact in their structure. This was either because their homes had only been partially destroyed by the storm or because they had been able to at least partially reconstruct their structures with scrap metal and donated tarps. Before the storm, most houses were made with concrete blocks and rocks for walls and metal sheets for roofs but the combination of those three materials have shown a low resistance to the category 4 hurricane. Another observation: most pf the affected houses faced the coast and had suffered either from the storm surge or were directly exposed to the wind gusts coming from the sea because of their location. About 12% of our customers were still displaced from their house at the time of the survey. Of those 12%, over 90% have the firm intention of going back to their pre-Matthew housing and about 4% will not. The likelihood of the customers returning to their previous housing appears to be directly related to the house owner’s ability to obtain the financial resources to rebuild.
Rebuilding is an essential prerequisite for customers' reconnection when grid service is restored in Les Anglais. Many people would like to rebuild with concrete to be better prepared for the next big storm, but in reality metal sheets are much more likely to be used because they are more affordable, easily sourced locally and easier to install. Because of this, most customers (72%) plan to re-roof with metal sheets compared to only 14% using concrete as the main reconstruction material.
The survey was also designed to find out how the components and materials used for connection to the grid fared. Given the extent of the storm's damage in the town, the survey results were surprisingly positive. On average, the components’ survival rate was about 69%. The remaining materials were either blown away during the storm or were intact but damaged. The most robust component of the home wiring installation was the breaker box (85.4%) and 67.5% of the SparkMeters were reported to still be in good condition. We are currently carrying out individual testing to find out which meters can still be used.
The population of Les Anglais is “thirsty for electricity”, as they phrase it. Even though phone charging stations exist, they are considered insufficient and have been identified as the greatest power needs, with over 90% of the respondents asking for this service. Ice is another commodity that is wanted but limited in Les Anglais as it requires a freezer and ultimately a generator and diesel to operate. Lighting is also an issue and solar lamps that were distributed by Enèji Pwòp proved to be the main source of lighting to many customers (37%), followed by kerosene lamps (36.1%).
"Electricity is addictive," explained one survey respondent, "Once one has access to it, one struggles without it." The Les Anglais community is struggling to adapt to the temporary absence of grid power by reverting to kerosene and candles for lighting. People are paying third parties for services such as phone charging that, with grid power, they used to have in their own homes. Customers expressed they are anxious to have Enèji Pwòp electricity back in Les Anglais. While they were initially afraid we would leave the community after the storm, these fears were assuaged when they saw the field team at work gathering downed materials and holding community meetings.
adapted from a presentation to the HOMER Energy Microgrid Conference
by Rachel McManus
EarthSpark is a US based non-profit with the mission of eradicating energy poverty. Our method is to do the r&d on business models that can spin off and scale. We’ve already spun off SparkMeter, a smart metering technology company along with Enèji Pwòp, a Haitian social enterprise. And we are now working on a business model for microgrids.
This is Haiti, where we work. Haiti is a beautiful, vibrant Caribbean country that also happens to be the second independent state in the Western hemisphere and the only born of a slave rebellion. The narrative we often hear is of devastating stories about Haiti so we want to start with the positive.
This blog will talk about our experiences during and after Hurricane Matthew but also highlight two main things: first of all that microgrids for energy access are really hard. And secondly that microgrids for energy access are essential to local resilience. Now is a really exciting time for building the models that can scale to solve pieces of very big problems!
This is also Haiti. Only about 30% of the country has access to electricity. And there are several groups working on energy access solutions there and a portfolio of technologies and products will ultimately solve the energy access problem.
Things were going well for the Les Anglais microgrid. Inaugurated in June 2015, the grid served 450 homes and businesses with electricity 24/7. Customers were saving 50-80% over what they were paying before for kerosene lamps, third party phone charging and small diesel generators. We signed a 9-year concession with our next town and had begun the process of community engagement and household mapping.
Of course though, things were not perfect. Haiti has been going through an electoral crisis and we were also dealing with theft, among many other issues (we’ll be writing more about our experience with theft protection soon!). Even to get to the point of having a grid we had to develop our own smart metering technology.
Things got even more difficult when Matthew, a category 4 hurricane made landfall in Les Anglais at the beginning of October. In the days before the storm, we prepared the grid the best we could. We let the community know in advance that we would have to shut down the grid so that they could charge their phones and radios, we placed sandbags at the generation site, shut off the grid and found safe spaces for our staff.
After the storm passed we had 3 days of no communication before we could learn what had happened. When we made contact, the information we received was devastating. Most people in Les Anglais had lost their homes; we even lost the roof of our own house. Approximately 90 people were killed though we are extremely grateful to find out that all of our staff members were safe.
Aside from preparing immediately before the storm hit, we had built a high-quality system. Our solar panel array was rated for a category 4 storm. We had also made sure not to connect houses to the grid that were in precarious locations. One area of town that we didn’t connect to the grid, Bo Lagon, was sadly wiped away before the storm even hit. In the end, the grid fared comparatively well. In terms of our generation system, we lost about 40% of our panels but the power electronics and battery bank were left unscathed. The distribution system, however, will have to be completely redone. As most of our customers lost their homes it will be a while before we can reconnect them.
It would have been wonderful to be able to say today that our microgrid was up and running and more resilient than the unreliable national grid. But when all your customers have lost their houses, it’s not that easy. Our generation system can be up any day now, but we think it will be about 6-9 months before homes are in place and the distribution system is rebuilt to provide power to our customers.
However, all of this also shows why infrastructure is so important. As relief took place, we saw how lack of infrastructure and planning – poor roads and lack of stored food supplies to name a few, made reaching those in need more difficult. To break from the difficulties of systemic poverty, infrastructure is so crucial. We see integrated electrification as part of a bigger picture of 'integrated economic and environmental resilience' that links to other sectors like roads/transportation, communications, and building materials/practices.
We have to admit that solutions even more decentralized than our grid – such as solar lanterns and small generators - met basic needs better after Matthew. Because people need energy services, not just energy access. We need to be building sustainable, long-term infrastructure, including sustainable energy services that can unlock economic potential with higher levels of power so that we aren’t always just meeting basic needs in developing countries.
EarthSpark is working on getting our microgrid powering homes and businesses as and when the community rebuilds. It’s not easy and there is a lot of risk involved, but our work also holds so much potential for not only solving energy access in Haiti but also unlocking deeper economic security and quality of life for the regions we serve.