09.21.10

The Magic Energy Bullet

With Haiti still crippled by power shortages, Robert Freling says he has the answer—and this morning, he got $1 million at the Clinton Global Initiative to put it into action.

For weeks after the Haitian earthquake, nightfall was on the long list of life’s daily challenges. Without homes or electricity, the people of Port-au-Prince lined the cracked sidewalks every evening with nowhere else to go, candles in hand. During my time covering the crisis, I witnessed the string of flickering lights stretched along streets in every direction, tracing the contours of the wreckage.

But less than 40 miles away, in the small town of Boucan Carré on the country’s central plateau, the lights shone brightly in one clinic, run by Paul Farmer’s nonprofit, Partners in Health. It had functioning equipment—at other clinics, surgeons operated by flashlight—and around-the-clock capabilities, all without having to succumb to the vastly inflated price of diesel fuel for its generators, courtesy of solar power.

Though not damaged by the quake, that building’s repercussions are still being felt there. This morning at the Clinton Global Initiative, NRG Energy, Inc. pledged $1 million to Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF), a 20-year-old nonprofit committed to bringing solar energy to the developing world, to try to prove that the sun can cure Haiti’s continuing power woes. The money is designed to turn the entire Boucan Carré area into a model for Haiti’s future. The first step: improving the health-care system across rural Haiti. PIH operates nine other clinics and SELF plans to equip all of them with solar equipment by late January. Some will be kitted out with as much as 25 kilowatts’ worth of solar capability, enough to power satellite dishes, biochemistry labs, and X-ray machines.

“It’s the most widely available, uniformly distributed source of energy on the planet.”

“These are not what I would have thought of as rural clinics, with a couple of lights and a vaccine refrigerator,” says SELF’s executive director, Robert Freling. “These are like small hospitals.”

From there, Freling, who joined SELF in 1994 and has started projects in 15 countries, plans to show that solar can move past lighting up clinics.

That would be a magic bullet for a country that has no real electric grid. By Freling’s estimation, 75 percent of the country does not have consistent access to electricity and that is the first hurdle between Haiti and a path to development. In a country powered by noxious, expensive diesel generators, solar energy has emerged as an obvious solution.

“It’s the most widely available, uniformly distributed source of energy on the planet,” Freling says. “You can predict, at any part of the world, exactly how many days the sun will shine. So you’re not dependent on centralized fossil-fuel plants and power grids that are prone to failure. If you have a solar system installed in your village, you are guaranteed a source of electricity. In a place like Haiti where you have abundant sunlight, why not tap into that source of clean, renewable, carbon-free energy to power homes, schools, clinics, water-pumping systems, communications, and micro-enterprise?”

Until recently, the answer to the question, “Why not?” has been brutally simple: money. Two decades ago, solar energy effectively cost hundreds of dollars per watt, not counting the cost of training technicians to maintain the delicate solar panels. Now, Freling explains, as solar cells grow more sophisticated and make use of new materials, the price has plummeted as low as $1.80 per watt, with promises to fall even further in the near future. Even without fitting their entire homes, Haitians could use new solar-powered LED lights, which are enough to help someone work or study after dark—they are available now for little more than $10.

In Boucan Carré, SELF has identified schools in remote villages where they can meet the desperate need for electricity. They plan on starting a micro-enterprise center and a tilapia farm. Just as importantly, SELF is introducing electricity to Haiti’s farming system. After successfully implementing it in West Africa, SELF can channel solar energy into a drip-irrigation mechanism, meaning better access to cheaper goods. “And that’s exciting,” Freling says, “because now we’re talking food production.”

The project for Boucan Carré, funded by NRG Energy’s commitment, is due to start imminently and will be largely completed within a year, Freling said. Though the commune of Boucan Carré itself, an aggregation of rural villages, only has about 48,000 residents, the benefits should trickle down throughout the area.

“We’ll be directly or indirectly affecting the lives of hundreds of thousands of people,” says Freling.

Joshua Robinson is a freelance writer based in Manhattan. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and Sports Illustrated.