By Allison Archambault and Madie Sturgess
As we welcome the holiday season, food will be central to many celebrations. Although the occasions may differ culturally, food feeds family holidays everywhere. In Haiti, aromas of spiced meats and vegetables, fried plantain, rice and sauce rise into the air and dance around neighborhoods, calling friends and families to their homes to eat and drink and revel in each other’s company. The flavors and recipes of Haitian cuisine have evolved over years of charcoal-fueled cooking. Come New Year’s Day, nearly every home will slowly stew the famed ‘soup joumou’ over hot coals. According to local lore, the rich pumpkin soup was formerly reserved for plantation owners. Fittingly, the now widespread enjoyment of soup joumou on January 1st has become a symbol of Haiti’s independence.
Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanza and various New Year celebrations are right around the corner. What role will food play in your festivities? Where will you source your food and how will you cook it?
There is no doubt Haiti’s cooking is a conduit to its culture. Haiti's cuisine is nourishing and flavorful, and it brings family together. However the reliance on charcoal for cooking, a consequence of energy poverty, also risks household health, releases black carbon, contributes to deforestation, and exacerbates Haiti’s vulnerability to natural disasters.
Working with members of the Les Anglais and Tiburon communities, EarthSpark is exploring the electrification of cooking in these microgrid contexts. It is a seemingly small solution to a big problem, but there is potential to eliminate the health and climate damage of day-to-day charcoal cooking by enabling grid-connected households to use clean microgrid electricity with electric cooking appliances. Of course, we are all anxious to see how the soup joumou and other favorite recipes will taste!
As with other EarthSpark efforts, the electrification of cooking in the microgrid context is not just a potentially new approach to energy poverty in Haiti but is also relevant to the way people think about energy access and infrastructure design around the world.
To everyone preparing a celebratory meal this holiday season, happy cooking and bon appétit!
By Allison Archambault, Rachel McManus, and Madison Sturgess
This article is an update of our original 2015 blog by the same name.
EarthSpark International is pleased to announce that our commitment to Feminist Electrification was awarded the Momentum for Change Lighthouse Activity Award by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change! The EarthSpark team will be at the UN Climate Conference in December working to promote how climate justice and gender justice are inextricably linked.
Lighthouse Activities are practical examples of what real climate action looks like.” - Patricia Espinosa, UNFCCC Executive Secretary
We like to think of our work through a lens of 'feminist electrification'. Here's why:
Feminism is the advocacy of women's rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.
Electrification is the process of powering by electricity and is usually associated with changing over from another power source. The broad meaning of the term, such as in the history of technology and economic history, usually applies to a region or national economy.
The arrival of electricity service in a town signals a significant moment of technical, social, and economic change. Residents put away their candles and kerosene lamps and – for the first time - flip switches for electric lighting. People charge phones in their own homes and launch businesses to charge phones of people living beyond the new grid. Small appliances like radios and DVD players which had previously been impossible or cumbersome to operate – requiring a battery to be charged and transported or the repeated purchase of non-rechargeable batteries – become more commonplace, and, depending on the level of electricity service available, new opportunities in home appliances, refrigeration, and mechanized labor may emerge.
The economic benefits of electricity have been well documented, but there has been relatively little attention paid to the gender outcomes of the arrival of electricity in a town. How can community leaders, non-governmental organizations, and grid developers leverage the social disruption that is electrification to improve the standing of women and girls in the community or, at a minimum, at least ensure that the standing of women and girls is not diminished?
Energia, an international organization specifically promoting women’s empowerment through the issues of energy, points out that globally women are largely absent from energy-related infrastructure decisions. This is in spite of research that indicates that involving women in the planning and implementation phases of infrastructure development improves outcomes not only for women and girls but also for men and boys and for the funders (and overall sustainability of the project) too!
In infrastructure projects, a review of World Bank projects showed that:
Energia goes on to explain,
“There are many reasons why gender has been a neglected factor in energy planning. Many planners do not fully understand that energy impacts differently on men and women. One explanation of why there is a lack of understanding is that energy professionals are nearly all men, so women are not able to bring issues that affect them to the fore.” (more from Energia on that here.)
In the rural Haitian towns where EarthSpark is active, both men and women take leadership roles in local organizations and economic activities, but gender norms rest – as they do in all cultures – on a complex set of cultural patterns and local circumstances. Women tend to manage household finances related to agricultural production and local trade. There remains, however, a trend towards male dominance in decision-making at the high levels of local governance.
The areas of opportunity for gender-related engagement in the electrification process fall into at least five categories: infrastructure planning, training and employment, small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) promotion, domestic energy use, and community resource availability.
A Haitian proverb often heard in Haiti says that fanm se poto mitan ("women are the pillars of society"). EarthSpark is working hard to ensure that these pillars of society are both beneficiaries and agents of change in their community helping to bring light and hope to all.
In general, access to electricity improves people’s lives by improving health, education, and economic outcomes. At the same time, local women are often under-represented in the decision-making process leading up to and structuring electrification. Since electrification of a town is by definition a cultural disruption, there is an opportunity to thoughtfully design the process to ensure “pro-women” outcomes. Not only is serving women’s needs an important tool in reducing extreme poverty; it also improves the viability of rural electrification business models. It is thus imminently within EarthSpark International’s mission to use a 'feminist electrification' lens in grid development planning and operations. From community engagement to employee recruitment and training to women-owned SME support and beyond, the women and men of EarthSpark and our partner organizations are hard at work on both climate and gender justice.
Please join us in the global conversation for a climate resilient future as we travel to Poland in December for the United Nations Climate Conference.
A version of this blog post first appeared in EarthSpark's newsletter. If you would like to receive EarthSpark news directly, please join our mailing list!
This week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report outlining global climate damage scenarios. Also this week, two American economists won the Nobel Prize for their work on climate change, innovation, and sustainable growth. The upshot is twofold:
The bad news: We are already feeling the effects of climate damage. At the rate of current emissions, we are on track to blow through our ‘carbon budget’ in as few as 12 years.
The good news: The future will be amazing! (if we have enabling policy and people actively engaged in building the future we want.)
Keeping climate change within the bounds of what many perceive as the maximum 'safe' limit would require "rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society," the IPCC wrote. They continued, "With clear benefits to people and natural ecosystems, limiting global warming...could go hand in hand with ensuring a more sustainable and equitable society."
Ending poverty and solving climate change are largely the same work. Our urgent problems are also our unprecedented opportunities.
With its long shorelines, dependence on agriculture, poor infrastructure, and location in ‘hurricane alley’, Haiti has been ranked the 6th most vulnerable country in the world to climate change. Sadly, natural events are reminding us that those in United States and around the world are also increasingly vulnerable. Our hearts go out to those recently in the path of Hurricanes Michael and Florence. With the most recent hurricanes in mind, it’s easy to feel downhearted, but core to both the IPCC report and the Nobel-winning work is what one of the Laureates, Dr. Paul Romer, calls "Conditional Optimism." Romer writes:
There are two very different types of optimism. Complacent optimism is the feeling of a child waiting for presents. Conditional optimism is the feeling of a child who is thinking about building a treehouse. “If I get some wood and nails and persuade some other kids to help do the work, we can end up with something really cool.”
We love this notion of conditional optimism, the sense that we can participate in the building of something really great. In addressing climate change and extreme poverty, solutions won’t magically arrive, but we can solve this – with the tools we already have – if we roll up our sleeves and get to work. “I think people are grossly underestimating how rapidly we'll start to de-carbonize once we put our minds to it.”
Working with communities in rural Haiti to envision and build transformative clean energy infrastructure from scratch, we feel the joy and the hard work of conditional optimism every single day. You are part of this journey with us, and we couldn’t be more grateful.
Please donate $25 now to help us build our next grids in Haiti.
One final note on optimism and action: as the US mid-term elections approach, we encourage those in the US to get involved and ask candidates about climate change leadership. Policy and prosperity are closely linked, and governments’ failure to build effective climate policies risks counter-balancing a lot of progress.
In actions and advocacy, now more than ever, we each have a powerful role to play in shaping our collective future.
Ready to build some treehouses?
In grateful, gritty optimism,
Allison and the EarthSpark team
(Image: Ms. Rosanne Jean-Jacques, a long-time grid ambassador, turns on electricity in her own home for the first time.)
Earlier this month during Climate Week in New York City, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, Patricia Espinosa, named EarthSpark International a winner of the United Nations Momentum for Change Climate Action Award for our 'feminist electrification' approach to microgrid development.
Fifteen projects were chosen from a pool of over 560 applications from all over the world ranging from businesses and governments to communities and organizations.“These activities shine a light on scalable climate action around the world,” said Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary of UN Climate Change. “They are proof that climate action isn’t only possible, it’s innovative, it’s exciting and it makes a difference.” This week a film crew from the UN came to Les Anglais to cover the story. We can't wait to share their footage with you!
Thank you to the 240 individuals who took the time to cast their vote for EarthSpark for the MIT Solve's popular vote award. We came in a solid second place, beaten out by a wonderful team working to restore shoreline habitats. Once again, we are honored to be surrounded by an entire community working on thoughtful, innovative solutions to resilient communities, climate change, and poverty.
Thank you for your continuing support in making our work a reality.
As you may be aware, parts of Haiti were hit with fatal earthquakes over the weekend. While Haiti's southern peninsula was lucky to escape unscathed, other regions weren't so lucky. We offer our thoughts and hopes for a better future to those who've suffered loss.
The devastating impact of natural disasters and extreme weather events are exacerbated by poor infrastructure. As more storms and more quakes are inevitable, we take solace in working with communities to help build resilience as we build power.
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.