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.


7 Responses to "Solar Recovery In Haiti: Building Tough Solar Cities"

jmburton said... 21 January 2010 at 17:44

There are powerful vested interests all over the Caribbean that don't want to go with wind or solar because it will negatively impact their oil based businesses - including government run (and many private) utility corporations on some islands that don't want to lose the revenue.

The Caribbean is made for solar and wind. The wind always blows - and usually at essentially perfect speeds for wind.

At least most houses have solar water heaters (read: big black tanks and glass with water).

Alex Aylett said... 22 January 2010 at 10:54

Hi JM,
I don't have any personal experience with the Caribbean, so I can't comment on the companies there. But the situation that you describe is one that seems common to a lot of places, the U.S., Canada and Europe as well.

In the longterm, I'm hopeful that companies will take advantage of the potential of renewables that you point out. That would give us another "vested interest" to even out the playing field.

But until then, I think that there is a huge role for NGOs and community groups to being working on their own grassroots renewable programs.

With renewables, if you have a bit of support and some determination, there is no reason to wait for the central government (of established energy providers).

Some of my favourite examples of this are here:

Alex Aylett said... 22 January 2010 at 10:55

There is also a great example of a government led program in India to develop solar cities:

mark said... 27 January 2010 at 19:10

I support the LightHaiti Project and I met with President Clinton last week - he made the same points. His charge 'Build Back Better'.

Thanks for the article.

Alex Aylett said... 27 January 2010 at 19:20

Hi Mark,
thanks for commenting. As things move along, please share any experiences of comments that you have.

Sheryl Joi said... 4 February 2015 at 10:47

What is the difference, if all energy sources presented at the chart, use same measurement units? And that falling curve in the present would not change it's direction, nor it's angle towards the axis. Solar Energy Even if we turn to cost of electricity as a method of comparison, I doubt it we would see much of a change.

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