I had an opportunity to travel to Haiti with Madie and Andy from the EarthSpark International team in early August. EarthSpark and Eneji Pwop (their local partner – translation is “Clean Energy”) have been operating a microgrid in Les Anglais, a small town in rural southwestern Haiti, for more than four years and have recent built a second microgrid in nearby Tiburon. They are in the midst of planning for another 18 grids over the next few years.
Despite its relative proximity to the US, doing projects in rural Haiti has some serious challenges. Electricity is spotty, even in the main cities, and without refrigeration, many types of food are simply not available in the unelectrified rural areas, except on market days, when freshly slaughtered meat can be bought. On the other hand, Haiti has extremely colorful buses and “tap taps” and riding in any sort of vehicle is always an adventure due to the ever-present “dos d’ane” (also called “sleeping policeman” or simply “speed bumps”), potholes, “Motos”, donkeys, chickens, bicycles, pedestrians and the occasional political protest. The food is also tasty, filling and inexpensive. Then again, it is always hot, there are lots of mosquitoes, and air conditioning is pretty rare outside of a few spots in the main cities.
To get to Les Anglais, we flew to Miami, then, after a six-hour flight delay, to Port-au-Prince. The next morning, we took a five-hour bus ride to Les Cayes where we met Adam and Wendy, EarthSpark’s local engineers. They stocked up on groceries and then we piled into the Nissan pickup truck for another three hour drive to Les Anglais, the last bit of which involved dirt roads and crossing a small river (no bridges).
Les Anglais is powered by a solar-battery-diesel hybrid power system. The system has been rebuilt after surviving Hurricane Matthew in 2016 (the eye of the Category 4/5 hurricane passed directly over Les Anglais) and is powering a couple hundred residential and commercial customers. The distribution system includes both medium and low voltage lines and metering is provided through pole-mounted SparkMeters. The town itself hosts a regional market which was much larger than I had anticipated. It was located in the open field right in front of the PV array, which make for some great pictures.
In addition to residences, Eneji Pwop and EarthSpark are providing electricity for local business, including a corn decobbing machine and a number of local shops selling cold drinks. Tariffs are set at different levels by usage – basic, TV, Refrigerator, “Gwo Bagay” (I think this is for commercial and wealthier residential customers) and “anchor” customers. The SparkMeter system allows them to set different tariffs during the day and at night, in order to promote productive use of electricity during the sunny periods and reduce reliance on the batteries.
We are working with EarthSpark to evaluate the practicality of electric cooking appliances, both to increase utilization of the electricity provided by the microgrid, and to supply services to households located outside the area served by the grid. Most food in Les Anglais is cooked using either charcoal or locally collected wood. The “kitchen” is a small roofed structure located near the house, or sometimes a simple three-stone fire under a shade tree. Most meals are based on a combination of rice, beans and local vegetables, occasionally with fish, meat (chicken or goat are most common) and fried plantains added in. The main meal is typically served in the early afternoon, with lighter meals for breakfast and dinner. This is perfect for solar electric cooking.
I also had the chance to visit the new Tiburon grid, which is another hour’s drive over a beautiful but bumpy dirt road. Tiburon is located at the extreme western end of the southern peninsula and is surrounded by steep mountains. The town had a diesel generator before the hurricane, but it has now been replaced by a brand new solar-battery-diesel power system coupled to a completely rebuilt distribution system. The grid has been tested and is ready to go, pending one final signature by a regulator. More challenges!
The EarthSpark engineers are a little concerned about the exposed site for the new PV array, but it does make for some scenic photos. And they have learned some things about hurricane survivability that they are applying to Tiburon and the upcoming grids.
The Haitians I met seemed to be fully involved in living their lives and were always friendly and helpful. It might have been a little easier if I spoke more than a couple words of kreyòl. My ten days in-country filled me with respect for the EarthSpark staff and their ambitious goals. Providing power to rural communities is always going to be a challenge, whether in Haiti, sub-Saharan Africa or South-East Asia. But to see the streetlights come on in Les Angalis and see people outside chatting under the lights makes it all worthwhile.