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A couple of years ago, during one of my first trips to Trou-du-Nord, a bustling town of about 45,000 people in Northern Haiti, I met Emmanuel, a mason who spends much of his team in the Dominican Republic working construction. The day I met Emmanuel, he was busy at work finishing up a new home for his mother. What struck me most was that he was using photovoltaic cells to power his tools. “We have no electricity here, so the neighbors share the panels as needed,” he explained. Emmanuel and his neighbors were well-acquainted with the benefits of renewable energy technologies. But their innovation and creativity was the result of the absence of rural electrification, not its complement.

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Emmanuel and his neighbors use solar cells to power tools and other equipment. Here, he is building a new two-story house for his mother. Photo: Patricio Zambrano-Barragán

 

Fast-forward to early 2015. Emmanuel’s home, Trou-du-Nord, is now one of the four communes or townships that operate as an electricity microgrid (a power network with its own generation resources that, under a special concession, can work independently or connected to the national grid, run by Electricité d’Haiti-EDH) in Northern Haiti. In just two years, the system, which is currently run by NRECA International, has gone from building up a local network for over 1,400 connections in the commune of Caracol, to serving 8,800 in neighboring Limonade (home also of the region’s only University), Terrier Rouge, and Trou-du-Nord.

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Under NRECA’s concession, these four communities and people like Emmanuel have, for the first time, gained uninterrupted access to electricity. New ventures are slowly appearing in small otherwise quiet towns like Caracol, where water distributors can now scale up delivery of purified water, and where local ‘cinemas’ can finally showcase soccer games—with cool drinks to go with them.

Haiti has the lowest per capita power consumption in Latin America; at about 25kWh per year, this figure is 30 times lower than in the Dominican Republic, and more than 500 times lower than in the United States. Access to electricity can be as low as 6% in rural areas and just over 30% in large cities like Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haitien. Despite ongoing efforts to increase efficiency in operations,  Haiti’s main utility EDH can at times register a cash recovery index lower than 20% (e.g., 20 cents recovered for every dollar of power produced). Communes like Fort-Liberté and even Cap-Haitien itself at times enjoy no more than six hours of uninterrupted power. In this context, NRECA’s early successes with the Caracol microgrid are as remarkable as they are overdue.

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Local ‘cinema’ in Limonade. European and Latin American soccer matches are the main attraction . Photo: Patricio Zambrano-Barragán

 

Customer service: the secret to successful electricity microgrid operations

Under NRECA’s management, collection rates in the Caracol grid sit above 90%, which bodes well for the system’s ongoing operational sustainability. This figure—evidence of citizens’ willingness to pay—shows not only how badly people in Caracol and Limonade need reliable power for their everyday activities, but also how much they value quality and responsive service.

According to Myk Manon, NRECA’s Haiti director, delivering power 24/7 is as important as picking up the phone and listening to people’s needs and occasional complaints. “When people call to tell us something’s off, someone from our team is always there to pick up and send out repairmen as quickly as possible. The impact of that—to listen and to respond—has been tremendous.” Myk adds that once people in underserved rural areas experience the benefits of continued power delivery, their attitudes around financial planning begin to change, leading to better planning for expenses and to higher household savings (studies similarly point to the positive impact electrification has on welfare and employment growth among women, for instance).

 

Bringing solar energy into the mix

NRECA’s partnership with EDH and USAID, which expires next year, follows the ‘cooperative’ way of doing business: the utility works at cost, with donor funding currently being used for operations, maintenance and select infrastructure investments. However, the arrangement does not cover the cost of fuel. The migrogrid draws power from a 10MW plant, part of the Caracol Industrial Park (PIC). It runs on imported diesel, which can quickly drive up costs and has higher carbon impacts. Why not bring renewables into the mix?

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One of the industrial shells inside the Caracol Industrial Park. Photo: Arturo Cadena

The idea certainly wouldn’t be new to the people of the region, many of whom, like Emmanuel, have been using such innovation (albeit on a smaller scale). Currently, the PIC has nine large industrial shells, close to 70,000 m2 of roof real estate, which would be ideal for solar PV systems. Each shell has enough daytime demand to absorb most of the power from the solar cells, and the buildings already have the transformers needed to change power voltage. NRECA, or any other microgrid company, could operate and manage the solar PV system, which, like every other part of the PIC’s facilities, would belong to the Government of Haiti and benefit industrial and residential customers alike. This option would immediately offset diesel generation and diversify the energy mix in the microgrid.

But what about homeowners like Emmanuel? Existing housing developments, like the USAID-sponsored EKAM/La Difference site, offer additional roof space. After installing PV systems for each household, homeowners could get part of the benefit based on the amount of energy fed back into the microgrid. This is done through net metering: each house generates an amount of kWh per month, which could be entirely or partially deducted the monthly power bill. Any remaining amount can help cover costs from operations and maintenance within the microgrid.

As the region works to meet the goals of the Sustainable Energy for All initiative (ensure universal access, maximize efficiency, and increase the share of renewables) it is critical to identify and replicate viable models to reach isolated/underserved communities, while simultaneously looking for opportunities to deploy low-carbon technologies. NRECA’s experience running Northern Haiti’s microgrid shows us just how these goals can be achieved.