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In Haiti, avoid the old poverty traps

Before too long, the world's attention to Haiti will inevitably decline, and the contracts that ultimately decide Haiti's fate will be doled out to the usual suspects involved in reconstruction.

But Haiti is in need of more than conventional reconstruction: It needs a rebirth, with fresh ideas and soaring vision. And clean energy technology could provide a way to build a new Haiti that avoids some of the poverty traps of the old system.

Although it may not seem significant, a concerted effort to provide a "subsistence level" of power for a large fraction of the population, rather than an abundant amount for a select few, will have a profound impact on Haiti's renewal. This is because the Human Development Index, a quantitative indicator of well-being, has diminishing marginal returns on per capita electricity consumption.

In other words, the first few kilowatt-hours of electricity consumed by an individual have the biggest impact on his quality of life, and they are also the most valuable to a Haitian consumer. Thus, for Haiti, a small solar light or system can improve lives drastically — far more cost-effectively and reliably than a centralized electricity grid plagued by unreliability and high costs.

Even before the earthquake, there was little hope that the government-owned utility Electricite d'Haiti (EDH) had the capacity to provide reliable electricity to most citizens; like nearly one-fourth of the world's population, 70 percent of Haiti lacked access to electricity. The 2006 Haiti Energy Sector Development Plan captured the gravity of the situation then: "The lack of electricity contributes to further increases in non-technical losses and it affects the economic growth, which result in lack of revenues for people and in the impossibility to pay the electricity bill and also in lack of revenues for the budget of the government, which is not able to give direct subsidies to very poor."

By living in energy poverty, defined by a lack of access to productive energy technologies, rural Haitians are forced to spend a whopping 6.5 percent of their annual income on kerosene and candles for household lighting. According to figures available from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star program, the average American family spends just 0.5 percent of its annual income on lighting its home. That 13-fold difference gives a clear understanding of why Haiti's energy intensity, the energy expenditure per unit of GDP, is so staggeringly high.

Why didn't anyone foresee how inefficient and ineffective this approach would be? The grid-based approach to electricity taken by EDH was dictated by the few choices available for generation technology — coal and diesel thermal power and hydropower — during much of the 20th century. These technologies benefit from economies of scale, and their inability to respond quickly to changes in demand means that they also benefit from serving a large number of customers, which smooths out fluctuations in load. But if nothing remains connected to the Port-au-Prince area grid, which itself is in shambles, why bother reconstructing a system that was ill-suited for Haiti and hardly functional to begin with?

Had the earthquake occurred just 10 years ago, there would have been few alternatives to deploying a new electricity grid. However, the recent convergence of the benefits of energy innovation R&D, globalization, and the mainstream recognition of social enterprises as a "best practice" for development have inspired innumerable suppliers to produce clean, efficient energy and end-use technologies around the world. Those suppliers, like SunNight Solar, Barefoot Power, and D.Light Design, have become recognized for integrating high-quality solar photovoltaic modules, LEDs, and batteries into products designed specifically for low-income consumers with little access to trained energy technicians.

Right now, efforts are being made to distribute highly portable solar-LED lanterns, which cost less than $20 each, along with emergency food, water, and medical supplies in Haiti. As those displaced resettle into semi-permanent or permanent living quarters in the coming months and small businesses open their doors, plug-and-play solar home systems and compact, innovative solar units like those made by ZeroBase Energy can provide power on the order of 10 watts to 2 kilowatts without using up scarce, expensive diesel fuel. On a slightly larger scale — a city block or community — we can hope to see the proliferation of hybrid solar PV-diesel microgrids with battery storage serving on the order of 10 to 100 kilowatts or more.

Of course, these grid alternatives come with their own set of challenges to implementation, but the solutions are more direct and cost-effective than building a fully functional centralized electricity grid. Electricity and equipment theft can be overcome by reforming the Haitian government's regulation of electricity sales to allow private entities, be they co-ops or enterprises, to distribute electricity through microgrids to end-users. Prepay meters offer a solution to the collection woes suffered by EDH, whose billing guesswork would infuriate customers and make revenue collection even less likely.

Addressing the problem of energy poverty through access to electricity is just one of the many technological challenges before us, and Haiti's state on Jan. 11 is hardly anyone's goal. The reconstruction effort as a whole must be framed in such a way that it builds a more resilient Haiti and provides for the Haitian people a sense of opportunity and equality never felt before.

Dan Schnitzer is co-founder of EarthSpark International and a Ph.D. candidate in the department of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. Reprinted with permission of the author.

In Haiti, avoid the old poverty traps 01/30/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 30, 2010 3:30am]
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