This week marked the two-year anniversary of the devastating earthquake in Haiti that killed 300,000 people, displaced 1.5 million people, and crippled already-crumbling infrastructure.
In the effort to rebuild, the Haitian government has a unique opportunity to transform its electricity grid to favor distributed generation and help increase energy access in the most energy-impoverished country in the western hemisphere. Today, only 12% of Haitians have access to the electricity grid.
However, expanding access means thinking differently about infrastructure than before the tragedy.
“After the earthquake, everyone wanted to focus on rebuilding the grid. But it’s important to remember that even if the grid were fully constructed, it’s still serving a small amount of the population and still hemorrhaging money,” explained Allison Archambault, president of EarthSpark International, an organization working to bring distributed energy technologies to Haiti.
“It’s the smaller solutions that have a bigger and faster impact,” she told Climate Progress.
EarthSpark’s mission is to bring distributed energy technologies to Haitians in order to help them spend less time and money on securing energy. The organization helps set up stores for selling LED lanterns and solar technologies, while also providing education on distributed energy.
Rather than spend millions of dollars on an expensive, unreliable electricity system that may not benefit Haitians for many years (if at all), EarthSpark is working on building a small-scale, profitable alternative focused on individual solutions.
For example, the solar LED lantern it sells costs about $12. With the cost of operating a kerosene lantern at around $0.25 per night, the payback for a safe, renewable product only two months. And that’s not even factoring in the cost of the actual kerosene lantern itself.
“The big grid is sucking up almost all of the political attention. It’s complicated and can be very political, but these distributed technologies make such a huge difference, very quickly,” says Archambault.
This struggle between large, centralized energy infrastructure and nimble, distributed infrastructure is playing out throughout the developing world. As emerging countries rush to catch up with the developed world, they’re often focusing on building the same type of dirty, inefficient energy systems — with that vision pushed by organizations like the World Bank, which is helping fund massive coal plants.
This conflict is now a central piece of the conversation around sustainable international development.
“Eliminating kerosene is different than eliminating a coal plant. You’re dealing with some pretty deeply ingrained forces,” said Justin Guay of the Sierra Club’s international climate program, speaking to Climate Progress at the international climate talks in Durban, South Africa.
One of the big “wins” coming out of Durban was the creation of a framework for the Green Fund, an international pool of money that will help finance mitigation and adaptation projects in developing countries. The fund is designed to bring together $100 billion a year by 2020 for deploying clean energy and other infrastructure projects.
But environmental groups are also heavily criticizing World Bank involvement in the Green Fund, saying the organization’s bias toward dirty fossilized infrastructure makes it ill equipped to manage it: