Developing Haiti’s Domestic Solar Industries

Developing Haiti’s Domestic Solar Industries

Last week, as I rode down the congested streets of Port-au-Prince on the back of a motorcycle, I noticed that the streets were lined with empty bottles, brightly colored shops, and seemingly out-of-place solar streetlights. Solar energy presents an incredible opportunity to Haiti, and Haiti presents an incredible opportunity to the solar industry.

Haiti is in some ways a leader in exploring the potential of solar power. For example, May 2013 marked the end of construction of the world’s largest solar-powered hospital. The Hôpital Universitaire de Mirebalais, built by Partners in Health, uses 1,800 solar panels to power the facility that will serve over 185,000 Haitians. Additionally, thousands of solar streetlights have been installed along popular city roads, around villages, and in displaced persons camps to improve physical security in the region. But although Haiti has pursued innovation and scalable methods of optimising solar power in commercial and communal settings, residential markets are still dramatically underdeveloped.

Even before the January 2010 earthquake, only 12.5% of the population of nine million had official access to electricity. Another million illegally tap the insufficiently monitored power grid. Even within the capital city of Port-au-Prince, only 45 percent of households have access. Clearly, there is a massive untapped market for renewable energy – especially solar energy given Haiti’s climate – in providing household access to electricity, particularly in off-grid rural communities.

I saw this first hand when I visited the Miracle Village in Fonds-Parisien, a rural border town about an hour outside of Port-au-Prince. Despite the fact that residents of Miracle Village live in newly-constructed, pastel-coloured homes and the village is surrounded by streetlights, they have no electricity within their homes. Residents, similar to most rural Haitians, have to pay someone to charge their cell phones, order their children to stop studying after dark, and rely on biomass for cooking.

Bringing electricity to a household obviously has a dramatic and positive effect on the family’s quality of life. That being said, the countrywide positive externalities derived from the solar industry in Haiti, principally job creation, will largely depend on whether Haitian companies are able to offer quality products at competitive prices.

Take the example of the Hôpital Universitaire de Mirebalais. Although 800 jobs will be created by the hospital itself, the solar roofing project only employ two Haitian electricians tasked with managing the system when the hospital enters its full-time operations. While Haitians will benefit from cost savings over time, foreign suppliers and consulting firms immediately profited from the project. Solon, a German company, supplied the solar panels, and Solectria Renewables, a U.S. firm, supplied the inverters. Sullivan & McLaughlin Companies, a U.S.-based single-source electrical contracting company, sent a team to Haiti to install the system and train the Haitian electricians tasked with operating it.

Contracting out to foreign companies to design, manufacture, install, and maintain solar systems obviously limits the positive economic externalities of developing a competitive renewables energy sector. While in Port-au-Prince, I met with Alex Georges, Co-Founder of ENERSA (Energies Renouvelables, S.A.). Created in 2007, ENERSA is Haiti’s only designer and manufacturer of solar panels and appliances. They are known for creating quality products, but they are unable to compete with foreign manufacturers, specifically Chinese, on price. A 60W solar-powered charging station, sold by U.S. firms for around $250, are sold by ENERSA for $1,200. Georges explained that this price differential is why they have lost contracts for community streetlight projects. Extreme price sensitivity is even more pronounced in poor households. Therefore, the government, specifically the Ministry of Public Works, Transportation, and Communications, should work in collaboration with private companies on policies to develop Haiti’s nascent solar industry.

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