Solar Recovery In Haiti: Building Tough Solar Cities

Last week's quake cut electricity to most of Haiti's capital. Without power , residents and aid workers are struggling to maintain basic communication, lighting and water purification systems. The CBC news had reports of officials queuing to recharge their mobile phones. What power there is comes from gas powered generators, but diesel is running low.

In the aftermath of the quake, Reuters reported that at night the only lights visible over the city came from solar powered traffic signals. Since then the hot sun hasn't stopped shining. Now there is a push to roll-out more solar. But beyond the emergency, renewables are key to making cities more resilient to natural disasters.

Solar in the Recovery
Solar setups are quick to install, mobile, and relatively inexpensive compared to the price of rebuilding a damaged electricity grid. They can also be incredibly robust. In a great post Alan Doyle, science editor at MSNBC, has a story about a solar water purification system recovered from the rubble by the Red Cross that is now purifying 30,000 gallons (over 110,000 liters) of water a day.

Sol inc, a US based solar street lighting company has sent a first shipment of lights for roadways, food distribtion, and triage sites. This may sound mundane, until you imagine trying to perform street side surgery or find family members in the dark. The LED lights can also withstand hurricane force winds – no small thing in a country that has also recently been hit by tropical cyclones. Sol has promised to match donations for people wanting to contribute to the program.

Communications are another crucial need being met by solar. China's ZTE corporation has donated 1,500 solar cellphones and 300 digital trunking base station. The same technology was used in China when an earthquake hit Sichuan province in May of 2008. A similar project is being set up by a group from Holland.

Renewable energy in Haiti is not a new. Walt Ratterman, CEO of non-profit SunEnergy Power International was working on the electrification of Haitian hospitals at the time of the quake. He is currently still missing.

Sun Ovens, another non-profit, has been working in Haiti for 11 years. Their solar ovens can bake, roast, boil and steam meals. They also give families an alternative to charcoal which is both costly and the root cause of much of Haiti's deforestation. They currently have one commercial sized oven already up an running in Port-au-Prince capable of cooking 1,200 meals a day. A larger shippment will be sent out at the end of the month and they too are accepting donations.

Building Tough Solar Cities
But the role of renewables can go far beyond this initial recovery period. People are talking a lot about the possibility that this might be an opportunity to rebuild Haiti on a more solid and equitable footing. Some are more optimistic than others. But if there is one small area where this might be true, it is energy infrastructure. Those solar traffic signals, still cycling through their colours over the streets of Port-au-Prince, are proof of the advantages of doing things differently.

As the rebuilding beings, expanding the role of renewables in Haiti could make it more resistant to the impacts of future natural disasters than many other countries. It would also be an affordable way to increase access in a country where -- even before the quake -- only 25% of the population had regular access to electricity. All cities, not just developing ones, are vulnerable to the disruption of a centralized energy grid. Think New Orleans, or the 1998 Ice Stom in Quebec, that left Canadian families without power for weeks in sub-freezing temperatures.

"Real" Electricity
In some circles there is the perception that solar energy is somehow a second rate power supply. I've heard people refer to grid delivered power as "real" electricity. As we look to a future where extreme weather events are increasingly likely, I'd say in many cases it is actually the other way around. As new electricity systems begin to go up in Haiti, they will help to support the difficult work of recovery and rebuilding.

As well as helping in any way possible, now is a good time for us to start thinking about the ways that renewable energy could make our cities more resilient to similar disasters.

Super Tiny Homes: How Much Space Do you Need?

The American home has almost doubled in size since the 1970s. In response, Huffington Post is running a cool compendium of photos and video on ultra-compact living spaces.

I spent part of last night browsing through the different homes. Smart design can turn incredibly small spaces (some under 100 sq. ft.) into attractive and livable spaces. (Well most of them looked livable, I had my doubts about one of two.) But more than that, the videos are worth a watch to see the reasons people give for choosing to downsize their lives. Here is one of my favourites:

Less House = More Life
Smaller houses are environmental darlings because they are more efficient and allow you to add density to existing neighbourhoods (some great examples from Vancouver here). But none of the owners and builders seem primarily driven by environmental considerations. Financial independence (read, not having a mortgage) was one of the main drivers, along with the desire to spend less time cleaning and tending to the clutter that accumulates in a big home. "Less house = more life" seemed to be the argument that many small-house owners were making.

The whole way through, if found myself asking, "could I live in that space?" It definitely goes against the bigger is better approach that has taken America by storm, inflating average house sizes in the US to 2,330 sq.ft. (in 1970 it was 1,400). Canada on the other hand averages at 1800 sq.ft. (in 1975 1,075). Japan currently averages at 1310 sq.ft. So the question is, how much home do you really need?

The Joy of Being Taxed : or why downtown businesses should love public transit

Why do Downtown businesses hate public transit? Business associations in many cities are on record opposing everything from bike paths and bus lanes to pedestrian boulevards and increased parking prices.

Columnist Gary Mason had a good piece in last Saturday's Globe & Mail about the joys of riding new, comfortable and well designed public transportation -- and the reasons that businesses should learn to love public transit. It's a personal account of the difference the new Canada Line has made in his morning commute the gist of which is summarized in his title "Bring on taxes - if they help transit grow."

His points are fairly simple: prioritizing transit over car traffic (which means spending the money needed to build the necessary infrastructure) is a win for everyone. Commuting times are shorter and more enjoyable, the environmental impact of transit is less and businesses benefit from people having easier access to the downtown core.

Here's a short excerpt:

"The business coalition opposing the tax is cutting off its nose to spite its face. As it is, 40 per cent of people coming downtown each day come by transit. The money collected from the tax is going to pay for improvements to transit so people can go downtown in greater numbers to spend money at the stores of those businesses opposing the tax.

As one planner put it to me, the degree to which the businesses are acting against their own self-interests is breathtaking."

Operator? Charge My Car Please.

So electric cars may be just around the corner -- but would you have guessed that we will be charging them at phone-booths?

There is a major push on now for countries and companies to corner the market on what will be a key part of tomorrow's mobility. Most recently, last week Spanish president José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (who has recently taken over the EU's rotating presidency) announced that creating a unified EU strategy for the development of electric vehicles was going to be a a key economic and industrial priority during his term.

Now I've got to say that I'm not one hundred percent convinced by electric cars. They seem a bit like "light" cigarettes to me; no matter how you refine a car, single occupancy vehicles it will never equal the efficiency of public transportation. The type of fuel you use also has absolutely no impact on how long you get stuck in traffic on the way to work. But that said, I think they have their place – in particular for communities that are difficult to service with public transit.

But the car itself is only one half of the equation. For electric cars to be a viable option, cities will need to install charge-points. If you've ever watch a crew open up a city street to fix a broken pipe, you've seen the tapestry that's woven underneath the asphalt. Cutting into that mat of conduits for water, sewage, electricity, heat, and telecommunications to run new lines is expensive. Zapatero's announcement reminded me of an innovative Spanish plan to cut those costs in Madrid and other Spanish cities. Instead of building a charging network from scratch, the city of Madrid has teamed up with phone company Telefonica transform phone booths (underused since the transition to cellphones) into charging stations.

Telefonica alone has 60,000 telephone booths in Spain. If the trials in Madrid, Barcelona and Seville go well, the model could be easily applied to other cities both in Spain and abroad. It's a cool Dr.Who meets Back to the Future Moment, and a particularly nice example of the old technology shaking hands with the new.

Back Soon!

Belated Happy 2010 everyone! Expect new posts with a slightly redesigned layout starting at the end of the week.



This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

Info on my consulting work, c.v. and current research focus is all here.