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Haiti switches on to solar power as sustainable electricity solution

 
Solar-powered Hospital in Mirebalais, Haiti

The new hospital in Mirebalais has 1,800 rooftop solar panels. Solar energy could offer a solution to Haiti’s power problems. Photograph: Dieu Nalio Chery/AP

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Haiti switches on to solar power as sustainable electricity solution” was written by Rashmee Roshan Lall in Port-au-Prince, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 17th December 2013 15.08 UTC

Mirebalais is just an hour’s drive north-east of the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, but in terms of technological distance travelled, the town might as well be on another planet. On moonless nights, much of the capital is dark; its shacks and makeshift roadside stalls are lit only by flickering candles or small kerosene lamps. It could hardly be otherwise in a country where only about 20% of the 10 million population are estimated to have access to electricity, the lowest percentage in the Caribbean.

But Mirebalais is home to a new, well-lit public hospital that can hum with activity round the clock. Seven months after the world’s largest solar hospital opened its doors, its 1,800 rooftop solar panels have generated enough energy to charge more than 19,000 electric cars, run six surgical suites, attend to 60,029 patients and safely deliver more than 800 babies.

“The number of deliveries is a pretty substantial fact considering that approximately three-fourths of women in rural Haiti give birth at home. The hospital is helping to meet a substantial unmet need,” said Jeff Marvin, of Partners in Health, which built the Mirebalais facility in partnership with Haiti’s health ministry.

For Haiti, the hospital is a shining symbol of what the future might look like, powered by the island’s plentiful sunshine.

More than 60% of electricity generation is unsustainably based on imported diesel, mainly from Venezuela. The overwhelming majority of Haitians rely on charcoal and wood for fuel, contributing to rampant tree-felling that has reduced forest cover to the perilous level of 2%. The search for cleaner, greener alternatives has become increasingly urgent. This is driving an initiative to literally light up Haitian lives, especially in poor off-grid areas such as the camps that sprang up around Port-au-Prince after the devastating 2010 earthquake, as well as deep in the rural hinterland.

A consignment of 12,000 WakaWakas (Swahili for shine bright) solar lamps, made by a Dutch company, arrived in October after a 10-month “buy one, give one” campaign, mainly in the US. They are being distributed free or for symbolic recompense in the form of community service through a network of non-governmental organisations identified with help from the Clinton Global Initiative. “This is the biggest endeavour that has brought high-quality personal, portable and self-sufficient solar LED lighting to Haitian families,” said Elanna Veldkamp, of Off-Grid Solutions, which manufactures the lamps in China. “The scale of this campaign provides for a real and lasting change.”

It is a bold claim, but even sceptics with experience of similar, if scattered, smaller-scale solar initiatives agree there is one crucial difference – the plan to make the WakaWaka lamps in Haiti.

WakaWaka Solar Lamp used in Haiti

A woman works by the light of a WakaWaka lamp

Veldkamp said the Haitian government’s enthusiasm led to a memorandum of understanding in June for large-scale local assembly, and eventually local manufacture, of the products.

If WakaWaka’s plans for local manufacture work out, it could be a crucial turning point. “Solar lamps are old news and the majority sold around the world have been subsidised after manufacture in China,” said Patrick Delaney, an American engineer who sold 10,000 solar lamps in Haiti, Nicaragua, Panama and a clutch of African countries through his largely self-financed non-profit company.

But even he agrees that local manufacture might upscale the sustainable provision of lamps across Haiti’s hinterland. “What’s new in 2013 is that wages are rising in China, less stuff will be manufactured there, so helping the local economy in Haiti by manufacturing them here would be the way to go,” he said.

 

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