An Unlikely Energy Development Opportunity Emerges in Haiti

Essentially starting from scratch, Haiti has a unique opportunity to build the kind of sustainable power generation, transmission and distribution system that could be replicated in other developing nations.

Although deep poverty remains a challenge, the country’s leaders say they are eager to move forward into the twenty first century with governmental and economic stability supported by reliable energy infrastructure.

Haiti is the first independent nation to be formed as the result of a successful slave revolution in 1804. Haiti remained socially and economically isolated for the next 100 years, which severely stunted its development. That is how Dr. Rene Jean-Jumeau, Haiti’s Secretary of State for Energy, set the stage for his lunch keynote address at the recent DNV Kema Utility of the Future Leadership Forum.

There is a wealth of data that show economic development is not possible without energy and the link between advanced nations and access to electricity is very clear. “Without electricity, water cannot be desalinized or circulated, refrigeration is not feasible, temperature-sensitive vaccines cannot be stored, controlled irrigation for agriculture is not practical, communication is limited, tourism is not attractive, and factories can’t operate competitively,” Dan Gregory, former chairman of Green Energy Corp. wrote in a white paper describing the Global Energy Model.

A Concept Hatched in NY Looks to go Global

The GEM institute grew organically from an initiative at the City University of New York designed to provide overseas students with the opportunity to attend a sustainable development program at the school. The idea blossomed into a full master’s program that counted two students from Haiti as some of its first graduates.

Program mentor Hillary Brown traveled to Haiti with Gregory in the wake of the January 2010 earthquake to inspect damaged buildings, when they got the idea to design a systematic approach to developing energy infrastructure, and GEM grew out of that concept.

GEM ‘s mission is to establish standards that deal with energy poverty in Haiti and beyond. The idea is to “energize developing nations with clean and renewable power,…it is a holistic and pragmatic model that captures the best ideas and documents the failures,” GEM says in its white paper.

Barely 30% of Haiti’s population has access to power and many hospitals, factories and city centers rely on diesel generators that require expensive imported fuel to run. Haiti pays an average of $0.35/kWh for electricity, which is high compared to the US average price of about $0.10/kWh.

“New Technologies, New Promises”

The country is faced with several monumental energy decisions – what is the best system? Should they choose a central hub approach like in many developed countries, or go with a system of microgrids? Do they choose fossil fuels, renewables or a hybrid model?

Dr. Jean-Jumeau is working through these questions – with GEM’s assistance – in a quest to find sustainable ways to develop all Haiti’s economic sectors so they receive the maximum benefits that each energy technology has to offer. “New technologies, new promises,” was one of his closing lunch keynote remarks.

Read more from the KEMA event in Washington, DC here.

Haiti has limited domestic fossil fuel resources and building new power plants dependent on fossil fuels is risky because the country does not have sufficient credit to secure competitive long-term fuel supply contracts. Deforestation has become an issue because wood and charcoal are currently some of the country’s main sources of fuel.

The GEM concept has been drafted, recently underwent a second revision and is now actively planning for the Haiti pilot project, which envisions a phased approach to attaining 24/7 power for the nation’s residents, businesses and government, Daniel Lemons, GEM CEO recently told AOL Energy.

Learning From Past Mistakes

The phased approach is expected to take five to ten years and its implementation will involve venture philanthropy. “We will not do anything that does not have a sustainable economic model behind it,” said Lemons. “Haiti is littered with failed projects like unused dams or wind farms,” he said, explaining that energy projects constructed without considering long-term maintenance costs and the need for trained technicians to keep the infrastructure running, are of little use.

Education is also a major part of GEM’s initiative and the lead phase of all project implementation will be education that will address the “brain drain” issue. Eighty five percent of college graduates in Haiti leave the country, he said. Part of the goal is to develop the indigenous engineering and project management expertise needed to operate and maintain the country’s energy infrastructure over the long term.

GEM is not Haiti’s only power infrastructure development initiative, and a new industrial park is being built in the northern part of the country with the help of USAID, the International Development Bank and a South Korean textiles group. The park is currently being powered by diesel or heavy fuel oil. Running at about 5 MW now, the park and surrounding area will require 25 to 35 MW at peak demand.

Coal is quick and cheap up front, but sustainability is a concern,” Lemons said.

Solar is a challenge because of the significant land area required for larger installations – “You don’t want to take away farmland,” he said. Perhaps a mixed use scenario would be a good approach said Lemons, and mentioned a solar panel installation at the Mirebalais National Teaching Hospital as an example.

There are many stakeholders currently operating in Haiti, with some bypassing the government to move ahead with projects unilaterally. “It can be disorganized or at least not coordinated,” but Dr. Jean-Jumeau is working hard to unify this and GEM provides a framework that these kinds of energy projects can fit within, said Lemons.


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