By Adam Eberwein & Madie Sturgess
How many times did you interact with electricity before you left the house this morning? There are countless thoughtless touch points from when we turn off the alarm to when we flick the last switch on our way out of the house. Consider for a moment how your routine would change if, due to unexpected soaring costs of electricity, you had to budget for and ration your energy use. Chances are it would change how often you used your phone or laptop, what kinds of food you’d prepare, and when you’d go to sleep.
When an under-electrified nation seeks to solve its energy crisis, determining what electricity should cost becomes more than a business plan or household accounting. The accessibility of electricity impacts culture, prosperity, and opportunity, and the costs – borne ultimately by customers, governments, or donors -- depend on policy, technology, and delivery structure. The question, “what should electricity cost”, is critical to EarthSpark as we work with communities to build a model for decentralized, cleantech-enabled, energy infrastructure across Haiti.
EarthSpark’s growing field operations are generating some real-world data necessary to help answer that question. Some of the latest figures from microgrid operations in Haiti are beginning to reveal the social and economic impacts EarthSpark’s microgrid energy is having on household and business.
Like in the US, Haiti’s rural communities depend on phones in daily life even though in Haiti charging a phone can be an expensive prospect involving a hike to the nearest phone charging business. Consequently, diesel generators (personal and small businesses) offer the primary source for phone charging, becoming a necessary and costly expense to the average household’s already tight budget.
In Les Anglais, our grid-connected customers have reported savings of 90% compared to their pre-grid phone charging expenses. More reliable and affordable access to phones gives customers greater access to information and opens opportunity for a mobile money economy to flourish. A change in affordability like this opens access to and participation in local, regional, and global markets in addition to news and information.
Access to Freezers
Households and businesses with grid-connected freezers are spending 45% less on electricity to reliably power their appliance. This makes freezers powered by a personal generator, nearly two times more expensive than its clean-powered alternative. Being able to afford to reliably power a freezer improves food security, nutrition, and economic opportunity. Local agricultural producers can nominally reduce post-harvest losses, households can store a diversity of foods for longer, and greater opportunities for small businesses arise. With inaccessibly high electricity tariffs these opportunities disappear, and with well-intentioned cheap tariffs these opportunities arise for a time but inevitably disappear as the operational model of the grid is unable to sustain operations and maintenance costs. In our team’s experience in Haiti, microgrid users’ adoption of freezers or fridges is an important step towards their adopting other income-generating equipment. The freezer holds the necessary combination of both a well-established and understood tool and a source of aspiration for many small businesses, with the ability to unlock new sources of income that were never before sustainable in this context. Our team has seen successful freezer utilization lead to adoption of tools requiring greater investment and savvy.
In off-grid communities, kerosene lamps and candles are frequently used for lighting, releasing hazardous air pollutants, while delivering only poor lighting quality. When EarthSpark customers connect to the grid, they put away their candles and kerosene lamps and instead flip the switch on for LED lighting that is cleaner, more affordable, and shines as much as 250 times brighter than pre-grid lighting (on a lumens per watt basis). Households with quality lighting are often associated with better conditions for education and home-based work and displace air pollutants responsible for 8000 premature deaths a year across Haiti.
Household Economics: Comparing pre-grid energy, microgrid energy, US grid energy expenses
The Challenge of Electric Cooking
Like EarthSpark, many microgrid developers have found some success in quantifying the cost to electrify household and community activities. Cooking, however, remains a rarely-touched area for microgrid operators. Transitioning communities from charcoal to electric cooking requires a model offering an affordable service that also meets the energy demands of local cooking habits. There is currently insufficient data to confidently determine the average household spend on charcoal powered cooking activities. Below is a table of a recent 9 customer sample recently taken in Tiburon which demonstrates this dearth of meaningful data. EarthSpark is currently pursuing technical and anthropological studies of the electrification of cooking to generate much needed data. By identifying the energy, time, and cost associated with local cooking habits and recipes, we aim to determine a pathway to electric cooking tariffs with competitive price points. Solving the cost of electric cooking makes a more robust case for the adoption of microgrid infrastructure in emerging markets.
Fundamentally, moving a microgrid model towards market must affordably meet the end user’s need. A genuinely sustainable model must also be capable of meeting operations and maintenance costs, and electricity access will only ever scale if the operations model includes sufficient revenues to pay (even subsidized) costs of capital. Striving to balance these competing needs, opens the conversation about the government’s role, be it by providing an enabling regulatory environment, offering subsidies, managing exchange rate fluctuations, or setting tariffs.
There is often a false expectation that renewable energy infrastructure must be solely rooted in the private sector to be considered a compelling fossil fuels alternative. And yet, globally oil, coal, and gas continue to receive $5.2 trillion a year in subsidies. These are exceptional heights of public investments for an industry that’s more than a century old and that carries such high social, economic, and environmental costs.
Determining asset ownership only further highlights the need to define the role of public and private participation in energy access. “What should electricity cost”, is a complex question that reveals how scaling an electrification model requires more than possessing a promising, technical innovation. Social, regulatory, and cultural challenges persist. These same challenges are relevant not just in other emerging markets but underly the global energy transition.
Drum roll please. The Tiburon grid is…ready to go, but still not on!
We’re thrilled to share that the EarthSpark’s long-anticipated second grid in the town of Tiburon is ready for the switch to be thrown. Technical testing saw streetlights blazing across the town and customers are now signing up and getting their homes and businesses wired up for power.
The catch? In an evolving legal and regulatory environment, we’re dotting our I’s and crossing our T’s and defining what constitutes operational approval from local and the relatively new national authorities. It’s hard to say whether the people of Tiburon or the EarthSpark team is more anxious to see the grid turned on, but we want to do it well and in collaboration with all of the relevant authorities. June 24 is a big holiday in Tiburon, so we’re hoping that we’ll all be able to find clarity before then to be able to power up the party (and the town!)
While the evolving regulatory challenges are a frustrating delay, they are a part of a broader shift for Haitian microgrids, and that is excellent news. When EarthSpark launched our first microgrid in 2012, our work was considered extremely fringe and essentially irrelevant to the national energy policy framework. When we expanded that grid in 2015 to be a ‘town-sized solar-powered smart grid’, policymakers took notice. Our 2015 National Microgrid Market Study furthered the discussion and became a benchmark document referenced by national and international authorities on rural electrification for Haiti.
Our steady work of “Proving what is possible” and “De-risking by doing” has not been fast, but it has been constant. We are now (finally!) seeing the shift that recognizes clean energy community microgrids as essential elements of solving energy access in Haiti. There are growing pains associated with that shift: new regulators, new rules, but we are working with the stakeholders to try to make sure that the outcomes enable EarthSpark’s broader goal of mainstreaming microgrids and specifically “moving microgrids towards market” in Haiti. For broad deployment of microgrids, smart regulation and clear policies are essential.
We’ll let you know as soon as we are able to flip that switch on in Tiburon, and we’ll keep you posted, as always, as we work to continue pushing and proving what is possible for community-centered rural electrification in Haiti.
Warm summer regards,
Allison and the rest of the EarthSpark team
Happy Earth Day!
Not only is the trend to 100% clean electricity necessary, it’s happening. Homes, businesses, cities, states, and countries worldwide are committing to a greener future.
More than 100 US cities have committed to achieving 100% renewable energy. In the past months alone, New Mexico, Maryland, Washington State, Puerto Rico, and Nevada have each set impressive carbon reducing targets.
This infographic captures a snapshot of the momentum building - and the long path we still have to go.
Just like EarthSpark’s microgrids in Haiti, local solutions for clean energy are here and promise local jobs, lower bills, and a chance for our environment to flourish again.
As we work with communities in Haiti to leapfrog from charcoal and candles to clean electric infrastructure, its clearer than ever that a global issue like climate change has local solutions that are within reach.
We’re excited to see what incredible innovations and progress is made during our next trip around the sun.
The work to rebuild Tiburon’s distribution system is on the final stretch! With poles and wires popping up across the town, our new Grid Ambassador Omilia has begun signing up new customers, and technicians have begun installing meters in customer’s homes.
This is an incredibly exciting time not just for us, but for the Tiburon community. Stay tuned for an update on Tiburon’s grid inauguration!
Love is finding the energy to help others.
On this Valentines Day, many across Haiti are blocked in their homes and isolated in small towns as protestors continue "Operation Lock" which is effectively blocking transit and commerce throughout the country. There is growing tension as fuel, food, and clean water supplies run low.
Protestors have reason to feel exasperated. Inflation has surged, making basic staples - many of which are imported - unaffordable for much of the population. Fuel shortages, and a growing outrage around development funds missing from the government coffers are driving louder and louder calls for the president's resignation.
Love takes many forms. Sometimes it demands protest. Sometimes it requires patience.
Though some are facing challenging circumstances in Port-au-Prince, most of the EarthSpark and Enèji Pwòp team members are safe (though stuck) in Les Anglais where the solar-powered microgrid is steadily providing energy to the town, undeterred by the national crisis.
We're happy today to share a new team photo of our growing team as well as a reflection from an independent consultant who recently came to assess our work. In the face of challenges and uncertainty, Love persists. If Love is finding the energy to help others, we will continue building it.
Happy Valentines Day from the EarthSpark team.
Beyond clichés - The Case for Feminist Electrification in Haiti
By Ash Sharma. Published Feb 1, 2019 on LinkedIn here.
The much vaunted phrase “win-win” doesn’t begin to capture the Haitian rural electrification project I have recently been evaluating. The Earth Spark mini-grid project implemented through local affiliate Enèji Pwòp (Clean Energy in the Haitian Creole language) combines energy access with energy transition, promotes the concept of Feminist Electrification http://www.earthsparkinternational.org/blog/feminist-electrification, builds rural livelihoods and addresses energy poverty reduction. You can add to the mix a dash of avoided deforestation, reduction of indoor air pollution and an increase food security through the electrification of on-site post-harvest processing.
The natural beauty of Haiti and the warmth of its people masks an underlying lack of economic opportunity, a worsening environment (evidenced by lack of waste and sanitation provision in the southern peninsula), poorly developed transport infrastructure, climatic vulnerability and the ever present risk of weather related disaster.
It is against this backdrop, that Enèji Pwòp has implemented an UNFCCC award winning solar minigrid system. I visited two towns where solar arrays had been deployed, met local consumers, institutions and microbusinesses, and witnessed at first hand the development of local enterprise and realisation of potential. Through retailing small, clean energy products and developing micro-grids, the social enterprise has mainstreamed gender considerations into its business practice. In Les Anglais, it has prioritized reaching out to women for training as clean energy and micro-grid entrepreneurs, as customers, and employees, with women as promoters of the grid (“ambassadors”) who play a key role in reaching out to other women and energy vendors.
Haiti’s critically low level of access to electricity (around 10% of rural areas) seriously hampers growth and poverty reduction endeavours. By aiming to build an additional 20 mini-grids in off-grid communities in 3 years, Enèji Pwòp expects to directly serve approximately 35,000 additional people through approximately 6000 new grid connections. The project is learning by doing in a difficult environment successfully experimenting with smart meters, cloud based customer management and billing systems, and innovative cost reduction strategies. Truly impressive work from a talented and committed team.
Keep up the great work!
(This post is included here with permission from the author. Additional comments and Mr. Sharma's other posts are on LinkedIn here.)
While our projects expand so must the EarthSpark family. A couple of weeks ago Enèji Pwòp’s Les Anglais team and brand new Tiburon team met with two-thirds of the EarthSpark team to kick off 2019 with soaring spirits.
Despite the unrest gridlocking the country, we are grateful to work together and share our love for the communities we work with.
A happy new year to you all! We’re thrilled to start our year with an exciting headline: EarthSpark won a UN Climate Change award! Last month, we were honored to receive a 'Lighthouse Award for Climate Action' at the COP24 Climate Summit in Poland.
The awards ceremony — where Wendy and Allison received the award for EarthSpark’s “Feminist Electrification” — was billed as ‘one of the most inspiring and hopeful moments of the COP.’ The Secretary General of the UNFCCC opened our event and praised the 15 winners for ‘real world examples of what scalable climate action looks like’.
To have our work recognized by the United Nations is a BIG deal for us, and we want to thank everyone who has helped us along the way. This award is for you!
The climate conference concluded with hard-won progress in the world of international treaties. This is great, important news and also totally insufficient. Being at the conference reminded us that all actors – individuals, businesses, organizations, and governments – need to push for progress on solving climate change. When we do, we enable others to also make progress.
One theme that was very strong in Poland was “Just Transition”, the notion that the best climate solutions build not only a cleaner economy but a more fair and inclusive world. From coal miners to communities that have never before had electricity, a Just Transition means that prosperity is possible as we collectively transition away from fossil fuels.
One other note from the conference: Unlike some who were claiming that fossil fuels are necessary to solve energy poverty, EarthSpark was there to share our evidence to the contrary. The first year of EarthSpark’s Les Anglais microgrid was over 98% powered by solar energy, directly from the solar panels and from the solar energy stored in the system’s batteries. The remaining ~1.5% of the power was provided by our backup diesel generator, but we are working towards phasing out fossil fuels entirely since the full costs of logistics and management are quite high compared to solar and other efficiencies we can achieve through smart metering and user participation.
While the recognition in Poland felt fantastic, we’re excited to be back to work building more grids to deliver more energy and opportunity in Haiti. We’re looking forward to making great strides in 2019, and we are ever-grateful that you are sharing this journey with us.
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! Wendy and Allison from the EarthSpark team were at the UN Climate Conference in December receiving the award and working to promote how climate justice and gender justice are inextricably linked.
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.
Here's what some are saying about EarthSpark's Feminist Electrification:
Involving women in decision-making is increasingly associated with better ROI for funders. EarthSpark’s ‘Feminist Electrification’ integrates this concept across its business model in a trailblazing way. Board rooms across the world, take note!"
No matter what the field, diverse perspectives yield better results. EarthSpark’s ‘Feminist Electrification’, which makes sure women are represented and involved at all levels of energy system planning and operations, is filling a critical need!"
Please join us in the global conversation for a climate resilient future by sharing this story.
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.