A Life-Changing Story in Haiti

If you Google “renewable energy in the third world,” you will see pictures of a mud hut with a PV solar panel standing next to it, or attached to its straw roof. It seems hilarious, like a sketch taken out of “Saturday Night Live.” But it’s real. The solar panel provides electricity for the family living in the hut, which was never before available to people in rural regions in the world’s poorest countries.

A friend from my old neighborhood emailed me a video showing a group of young Haitian kids reading books and doing homework under a solar-powered street lamp. My friend and her husband’s charity foundation, the Wilcox Family Foundation, is a major benefactor to Habitat for Humanity’s recent solar lighting project in Canaan, Haiti. With funding provided by her family foundation and USAID, Habitat for Humanity recently installed 70 solar streetlights in this settlement community a few miles outside of Haiti’s capitol, Port-au-Prince. Those streetlights have drastically improved the lives of Canaan residents.

Canaan, named after the biblical “Promised Land,” is a large settlement developed after the devastating earthquake in January 2010. Today, it has grown into the fourth largest city in Haiti, with an estimated population of over 200,000. After billions of dollars donated worldwide to help rebuild Haiti since the earthquake, many residents in Canaan still live in the dark after nightfall, with no running water and no sanitation services.

The street lighting project my friend helped to fund is part of Habitat for Humanity’s Quick Impact Projects. The goal is to provide quick answers to some of the community’s immediate needs. Before the lights were installed, people were afraid to go out at night. Women and girls were raped after dark and merchants were robbed on their way to work at dawn. Thanks to the solar street lamps, there is now nightlife in Canaan. The video I mentioned earlier shows people gathering around a night market; there was music playing, people making food and crafts and children reading and studying; all occurred in the light under a single street lamp. The community is now safer and children have a better chance to succeed in school.

The Canaan story is only a tiny part of the large picture of how renewable energy has changed life in Haiti, including that of people living in the remote, poorest regions.

Before the earthquake, only 12.5 percent of Haiti’s population was connected to the electricity grid. People who had money used small diesel fuel generators for electricity. Recovery efforts immediately after the earthquake focused on projects with instant impacts, such as street lighting, to provide safety in settlement camps, especially for women and children.

Later, small-scale solar products such as personal, portable solar LED lamps were donated and distributed to numerous communities. But in addition to the lighting, people need access to reliable electricity services for other basic life-sustaining activities, like cooking.

Kerosene fuel is not only a health hazard for its harmful fumes, but also a fire hazard in crowded tent camps. Upgrading and expanding the country’s antiquated, damaged and unreliable energy infrastructure wasn’t a viable option. Clean energy became the solution.

Although Haiti is one of the world’s poorest countries, one thing it has in abundance is the sun. Small, independent power grids powered by solar panels were developed to provide clean, reliable solar energy to homes and businesses. These micro-grids have been established to power hospitals, schools and towns. They have helped farmers and agricultural businesses increase production, and provided power to process local crops that would otherwise perish before arriving at markets.

Along with other renewable energy resources – hydropower, wind, biomass and geothermal that are being developed or planned in Haiti, it is estimated that by 2030 Haiti can decrease energy prices for residential consumers to at least a third of current levels, while incurring savings in fossil fuel import cost.

Similar sustainable energy strategies are being developed in other Caribbean, Central and South American and African countries. Clean energy technology has improved quality of life for so many and reduced the carbon footprint from that part of the world.

Yet here we are, in the backyard of the world’s center of high tech and innovation, forced to fight for access to rooftop solar. Is something wrong with this picture?

This article first appeared in the April 19, 2017 issue of the Rossmoor News. Author Jennifer Mu can be emailed at barnhartmu8833@gmail.

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