March 10, 2010

Rebuild Haiti With Solar Power, Not Firewood?

This week's edition of The Economist magazine includes an article about Haiti entitled "Island in the sun", which begins by saying that:

It might seem callous in the aftermath of 230,000 deaths in January’s earthquake to talk about the opportunity offered by the rebuilding of Haiti. But merely restoring the most benighted country in the Americas to its previous misery would be culpable. Among the opportunities is to improve Haiti’s energy infrastructure.

Even the online version of the Economist's statistics on global economic activity don't include Haiti, so we need to look somewhere else to try and find out what they mean by the term "benighted country". The Thompson Reuters Foundation AlertNet site gives us an idea of how "benighted" Haiti actually is. It uses Gross National Income per capita as a measure of standard of living, and this is what it reveals. The standard of living in Haiti is so low you can barely make it out on the chart. For 2006, the most recent year for which full statistics are available, the numbers are as follows:

  1. United States – GNI per capita $44,830
  2. United Kingdom – GNI per capita $40,660
  3. France – GNI per capita $36,710
  4. Haiti – GNI per capita $490

By this measure the standard of living in the United States was almost 100 times greater than in Haiti even before the recent earthquake.

One side effect of this lack of gross national income is that before the earthquake:

Lacking domestic fossil-fuel supplies, Haiti was spending some $500m a year importing them. Its energy infrastructure was dismal, most Haitians having no access to electricity. Of those who do, perhaps half are hooked up illegally. The grid lost about half the generated energy, and missed out swathes of the country.

Again according to the Economist:

A recent declaration by ministers at a UN Environment Programme meeting in Indonesia urged the UN to rebuild Haiti in an environmentally friendly manner.


Jigar Shah, the bumptious chief executive of the Carbon War Room, a ginger-group in Washington, DC, who formerly ran SunEdison, a solar power company, hopes to get a great deal more solar investment committed at a donor meeting to be held at the United Nations later this month.

Richard Branson is one of the founders of the Carbon War Room, and he certainly has a reputation for getting things done. Nonetheless it is perhaps fortunate in all the circumstances that it is not necessary to wait for the UN to deliberate on this issue, because "solar investment" is already taking place in Haiti. The Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF for short) and Partners In Health (PIH) have already started converting PIH clinics in Haiti to use solar power instead of diesel generators.

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