Péligre Dam was completed in 1956 as part of a flood control and irrigation project along the Artibonite River. The dam began producing hydroelectric power in 1971. Photo by Arikia Millikan/Wired.com.
Electric lighting first came to Haiti in 1896 when a steam factory opened in the southern coastal town of Jacmel. It powered 200 electric street lamps among Jacmel’s traditional gingerbread architecture for seven months, until a fire roared through and destroyed much of town and, along with it, the electrical system.
More than a century later, Haiti still struggles to light its cities’ streets. In the capital city of Port-au-Prince, grid electricity from the state-owned power company, Electricité d’Haiti (EDH), is unreliable and unpredictable, causing many people to rely on expensive diesel generators during blackouts. According to the Ministry of Public Works, Transportation, and Communication (MTPTC), only about 12 percent of 10 million Haitians have access to electricity, although the actual figure is undoubtedly higher given many extralegal connections into the grid.
Haiti’s electricity problem is ultimately an energy problem with two facets: production and distribution. Most Haitians, especially in rural areas, cook with wood or charcoal. The Haitian government estimates that about three-quarters of energy used in the country comes from biomass, a factor that continues to exacerbate Haiti’s deforestation problem. The country has around 200 megawatts of installed electric production capacity, but because of lack of maintenance in past decades, most of the country’s major power plants produce at half capacity or less. According to MTPTC, nationwide demand for electricity is 550 megawatts, a fanciful figure given current output.
Distribution is another issue altogether, as there’s no national grid. Instead, nine separate electrical networks dot the country. Poor maintenance, lack of funding, and lack of equipment for repairs has caused infrastructure to deteriorate over the years. Old transformers routinely fail. People not connected to the grid tap into it themselves, sapping output. Additionally, EDH doesn’t have the technical systems or management capacity required to bill customers properly, resulting in huge losses each month.
Port-au-Prince may be home to most of the country’s electricity users, but Haiti’s electricity challenges reach well beyond the capital.
A Half-Century-Old Dam
An hour-and-a-half drive northeast of the capital in Haiti’s Central Plateau lies the lower end of the man-made Lac de Péligre. From atop the 230-foot-tall dam that created the lake in 1956, green mountains rise from the glinting body of water around which villagers make their homes.
The construction of Péligre Dam plugged the Artibonite, Haiti’s largest river that twists toward the coast through the region known as the country’s rice basket. It was initially erected back in the ’50s to control flooding and provide irrigation to farmers downstream. But it also had hydraulic potential to provide electricity to the capital’s burgeoning population down the plateau.
Engineers from Milan oversaw the installation of the dam’s first two turbines, each with a capacity of 18 megawatts, which became operational in 1971. A third turbine completed four years later brought the dam’s power-generating capacity to 54 megawatts, and 24-hour electricity surged through the capital.
“It’s a shame,” says Godson Christolin, an EDH engineer who’s worked at the dam for four years, when I ask him about upstream farmers who were displaced when the dam was built. Christolin grew up two kilometers downstream from the dam but comes from a generation, like many residents near the lake today, whose parents or grandparents used to farm land now underwater. The upshot of causing a flood that formed the lake was better flood control, irrigation and, eventually, the creation of renewable energy that would light city homes and businesses.
Today, the dam’s capacity tops out at around 30 megawatts during the rainy season. The power plant was designed to operate for only 30 to 40 years, and wear-and-tear on the turbines and electromechanical equipment results in periodic breakdowns. During dry months, when the lake’s water level isn’t high enough to spin all three turbines with ample force, the dam produces only 10 megawatts, according to the MTPTC. An IDB study found that sediment that runs off from the somewhat denuded hills that surround the lake has reduced the reservoir’s volume by half, and, consequently, decreased the dam’s power-generating capacity. And for a project originally designed to control water, the smaller size of the reservoir today means that much of that control is back in Mother Nature’s hands. Heavy rains sometimes flood the villages that ring the reservoir — or require the dam to be opened, flooding fields and villages downstream.
As I tour the dam with Christolin, two turbines are running, and gauges in the ’70s-era Soviet-esque control room show that both are generating about 14 megawatts. There’s not enough water in the lake today to spin the third turbine. Still, depending on the plant’s output and how little electricity is being produced by the country’s other, mainly thermal, power plants, Péligre can at times account for a quarter of the country’s electricity production.
DIY Electrical Connections, Blackouts, and Generators
“Some people here have power,” says Jackson Felix, a 27-year-old resident of Adokin, “but most don’t.” Adokin is a community of about 3,000 people in the Delmas 33 neighborhood that sprung up after the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake. Like many communities scattered around Port-au-Prince that still hold some of Haiti’s estimated 390,000 displaced residents, it started out as a tent camp, but today is a more permanent settlement of structures made out of scrap wood and corrugated metal and tarps. Some residents, Felix explains, have jigged up their own connections into the electrical grid. These DIY connections not only contribute to the grid’s degradation but also siphon power to consumers who will never be billed for their electricity use — potential revenues that EDH will never realize.
In addition to neglecting physical infrastructure, EDH, which declined multiple interview requests for this story, has a huge problem with billing. For the customers the company manages to send invoices, the company collects only 18 percent. It all adds up to a loss of $11 million per month, Director General Garry Valdemar told Haiti Libre last December, which is sucked straight out of the government’s budget. Valdemar also claimed that the company’s revenues cover only about 30 percent the operating budget.
High-tension power lines span the sheet metal and plastic tarp homes of Adokin, running to an electrical substation next door. One transmission line from Péligre distributes power locally to some, but not all, of the villages scattered around the lake and to Central Plateau towns like Mirebalais and Hinche. But most of the energy produced at the dam is transmitted via another high-tension line to two substations in the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area, including the one in Delmas 33.
As a spontaneously created community for residents displaced by the earthquake, no one intended for Adokin to have electricity. But many in the capital who are connected to the grid can commiserate with residents’ lack of electricity here. Port-au-Prince has grid power for only 10 hours per day on average. Affluent residents and businesses run diesel generators during blackouts if they can afford to, and some factories resort to using costly industrial-grade generators to ensure production continues in the absence of grid power.
‘A Real Challenge of the Maintenance Culture’
“Here, there is infrastructure,” Lumas Kendrick says as he sits in a shaded courtyard at his Port-au-Prince office off Route de Frères. “But there is a real challenge of the maintenance culture. So things that have been invested in and basically put in place have deteriorated.” Kendrick is an Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) energy specialist who’s been working in Haiti for the past four years.
“The long-term issue,” says Kendrick, “is to move Haiti away from a fossil-fuel-based energy picture, where the cost of energy is increasingly going up, and Haiti’s ability to meet its energy bills based on buying energy on the international market is less and less.”Most of the electricity generated in the country comes from thermal plants that burn diesel or heavy fuel oil, a relatively costly way to generate electricity, which is part of the reason that a kilowatt hour of electricity in Haiti costs $0.28. In the United States, a kilowatt hour runs about $0.10.
Two thermal plants that serve the capital’s metropolitan area — one in Carrefour and another in Varreux — originally produced slightly more than 100 megawatts of power. Today, they manage about a quarter of that output. Both plants burn diesel, which the Haitian government buys on credit. The Associated Press recently reported that after the government used post-earthquake donations to pay off its outstanding debts, the state began borrowing again — $657 million so far — largely to buy imported fossil fuels used to generate power. The plants’ decreased capacity is due to diesel motors that have failed over the years and remain unrepaired.
The IDB, of which Haiti is a founding member, has invested more in post-earthquake Haiti than any other multilateral donor. The Bank, along with a German development finance agency and OPEC, is financing a $48 million rehabilitation of the Péligre Dam designed to restore its original 54-megawatt capacity. IDB is also funding a program in partnership with the World Bank and USAID to improve EDH’s technical and financial management, train staff, and, ultimately, reduce losses.
“The lack of maintenance and deterioration,” Kendrick says, “is a symptom of the low level of leadership in the sector on the public sector side. I think that’s the real issue.”
A Minister Without a Ministry
The IDB recently hosted a panel event at its Bourdon office on the outlook for Haiti’s energy sector. René Jean-Jumeau, President Michel Martelly’s recently designated Minister Delegate in charge of energy security, was a speaker. Jean-Jumeau is a former secretary of state for energy in a country that has never had a discrete energy department. Energy policy is scattered between the MTPTC, EDH, and the Bureau of Mines and Energy. Title pages of energy reports issued by the government, like the most recent draft of proposed energy policy, bear the acronyms of all three entities.
“Without that leadership,” says Kendrick, “all these symptoms that we see — the lack of maintenance of the facilities, a feeling of impunity on the part of the population to just take energy as they wish, that they can just tap in where they want, because they know there’s not going to be any repercussion to that — that’s all a part of the fact that in the large picture, there has really never been any leadership on the side of the Haitian state to take control over that.”
At the IDB event, Jean-Jumeau stressed that the government has to prioritize the energy policy that’s best for the country, rather than letting politics simply dictate policy. In the past, politicians have been wont to pander for votes or support with promises of providing electricity in certain neighborhoods.
On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe said at a think-tank appearance that the Haitian government’s goal is to double the country’s capacity, increasing it to 500 megawatts, by the end of Martelly’s term in 2016. In addition to the Péligre Dam rehabilitation and the efforts to make EDH something other than a pecuniary black hole, the administration also plans to revitalize seven substations in the Port-au-Prince area and construct a new substation in Tabarre to serve the growing population on the northeastern side of town. Lamothe also stressed the need to connect the nine segmented regional networks into one national one.
Jean-Jumeau and Lamothe have both pointed to prepaid meters as a possible way to improve electricity access and collection. Lamothe cites South Africa’s success using prepaid electricity and the example of cellphones, which are ubiquitous in Haiti and generally pay-in-advance. Relatives living abroad can top-up cell credit for Haitians, and Lamothe envisions the Haitian diaspora doing the same with electricity.
‘You Have to Start Somewhere’
“The government will never be able to make enough investments by itself to increase production to 500 megawatts,” Jean-Jumeau said during the IDB panel.
A handful of private power generation firms sells electricity to EDH. One such company is E-Power, a 30-megawatt heavy fuel oil plant on the outskirts of Cité Soleil. The World Bank’s IFC arm provided the bulk of financing for the factory in 2009, and it was completed more-or-less on time, despite the earthquake, in October 2010. CEO Carl-Auguste Boisson says that E-Power has already begun to save the state $20 million per year in generation costs thanks to burning cheaper fuel oil instead of diesel.
“It’s going to be a big challenge,” says Boisson, “because it takes time to develop a project of that importance, or several projects, to increase from about 200 megawatts to 500 megawatts.”
“However, even if it’s not completed by the end of President Martelly’s term, I think they are giving the right signal and having the right priority. You have to start somewhere, put ambitious objectives on the table.” He adds that the private sector is already “available, ready, and interested to move into this sector of the economy.”
Boisson stresses the importance of overcoming Haiti’s energy challenges to the country’s prospects for progress. “This government wants to grow at around 10 percent a year,” he says. “You’re going to need a fair amount of electricity to support that growth.”
“Everybody should be working toward this goal if we want to help the development of Haiti.”