At the close of a summer in which environmental news was dominated largely by record temperatures, devastating drought in the U.S. Midwest, and lackluster progress at the Rio+20 summit, reasons for optimism can seem few and far between. But in two seemingly unlikely places—countries commonly (though simplistically) associated with poverty, ecological disaster, and violence—renewable energy projects are demonstrating their ability not only to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but to power economic and social recovery.
In both Haiti and Rwanda, recent stories of progress and achievement reveal how renewables are powering national development from the ground up.
Haiti: Building back better
In the wake of Haiti’s disastrous 2010 earthquake, which thrust the country once more into the international spotlight as tragic victim, the Haitian government and international organizations voiced the intention to “build back better.” The goal was to ensure that the post-earthquake rebuilding process focused not only on reconstructing fallen buildings, but on making sure that the country as a whole became more resilient.
According to the Haiti Regeneration Initiative, Haiti currently faces four major challenges: post-earthquake recovery and reconstruction; economic and social development; environmental stabilization and restoration; and increasing resilience against future hurricanes, floods and earthquakes, and economic shocks. A crucial element for achieving all four of these goals is the extension of affordable, reliable, and sustainable electricity services.
The Haitian government recognizes the importance of electricity access. In January 2012, the government launched the “Ban m limyè, Ban m lavi” (“Give me light, give me life”) program, an ambitious plan to extend electricity access to 200,000 rural households over the next two years. The program demonstrates an explicit commitment to making rural electrification a central component of the country’s broader development strategy.
Given the limited functionality and reliability of Haiti’s electrical grid, there is significant potential for using distributed generation – power generated from small, on-site generation units – in health clinics, hospitals, schools, and businesses. Historically, institutions and organizations that could afford it relied mostly on expensive and environmentally destructive diesel generators. Increasingly, however, groups are turning to renewable sources of distributed generation, demonstrating the critical links between renewable energy and sustainable development.
The Mirebalais National Teaching Hospital, built with the support of Partners In Health and its sister organization Zanmi Lasante, will provide improved health facilities and medical education. It is powered by roof-mounted solar photovoltaic panels, which provide 400 kilowatts of electrical power—enough to offset daytime consumption. ENERSA, a Haitian manufacturer of solar panels and appliances, has begun installing solar equipment at hospitals, in villages, and at agricultural facilities, underlining the crucial role of Haitians in establishing renewable energy companies and initiating and developing successful projects.
Although many of these projects are relatively small, serving individual facilities rather than providing power to the broader Haitian population, they illustrate the ability of renewable technologies to create real progress on the ground. They could serve as models for future energy sector development based on a scaling-up of successful distributed renewable projects, especially in rural regions.