Portable Solar Lights Provide Safety in Haiti

Traveling the Haitian countryside before the January earthquake no one would have had to tell me that only 12.5% of the population was connected to public power. Portable solar and solar thermal was about the only way you were going to get electricity and hot water for a shower.

The earthquake leveled the country and created even more hardships for the lovely people of Haiti. Portable solar and solar generators are playing an important role int he countries recovery. With diesel difficult and expensive to come by, solar is coming to the rescue.

Organizations have donated thousands and thousands of portable solar LED lights ranging from individual hand-held solar lanterns to residential lighting systems, streetlights and security lights, and on to major solar installations in schools and clinics Amanda Miller reports in an article for Clean Energy Authority.

Many of the organizations most active in lighting Haiti with solar power were already working in the country, trying to make a difference, even before the disaster. Dan Schnitzer, co-founder and executive director of EarthSpark International, which has donated more than 5,500 portable solar lanterns to women and families since the earthquake, took several trips to Haiti before the quakes. He started visiting the country in 2008, trying to find solutions to Haiti’s energy poverty.

He conducted surveys asking residents what kind of help they most wanted in conquering their energy woes. He found that the average Haitian family spent 10 percent of its annual $1,200 income on kerosene and candles and another 5 percent on charging up their cell phones at 25 cents a pop. He presented them with a list of 10 technologies including solar-powered streetlights and community facilities, biofuel systems, home solar systems and portable solar lights.

More than 75 percent of the 300 or more Haitians he surveyed said they were most interested in home solar systems and portable solar power lights. Schnitzer finished most of his research in Haiti in the fall of 2009, not long before the earthquake. The research led Schnitzer and his partners to decide the path forward would be to open a retail store selling home solar systems for $240 that would take a home with no electricity and no pluming, “basically just four walls and a roof,” and give it energy-efficient lighting and enough extra power to charge a cell phone every day, Schnitzer said.

The $240 kits are complete with solar installation, wires, battery back-up and light bulbs, he said. The retail store took some time to set up, but has been up and running in Les Anglais since July, Schnitzer said. EarthSpark has funded the store so it can give the kits, education and financing options to those families that want to install systems. All of that was in the works before the quake, Schnitzer said. But the need for portable solar-powered lights became devastatingly clear after the earthquake.

“It came to our attention pretty quickly that there was a big problem with violence against women in the camps,” Schnitzer said. “And a lot of that problem was attributed to the darkness. The darkness made them vulnerable when they were on their ways to the latrine or if they weren’t in a tent at all.”

That’s when EarthSpark began working with organizations on the ground in Port Au Prince to get portable solar lanterns into those tents. “We used our knowledge of the best solar lighting technologies out there to get lights to the camps,” Schnitzer said. Vulnerability and danger in the camps drove several other solar projects as well. Amnesty International announced in March that violence against women and girls was widespread in the camps and called for more measures to protect them.

More than 35,000 solar lights were deployed in the camps to hedge against violence and vandalism, according to a March National Geographic Magazine article. Sol Inc. donated 100 solar-powered security lights to Haiti in the first few months after the earthquake, said Sol General Manager Audwin Cash.

“These are lights similar, smaller, but similar to the ones they use on military bases and to secure the perimeter at prison facilities,” Cash said. They were used at the camps to give light and help keep people safe. They were also used as makeshift street lamps and in clinics and public buildings, he said.

Sol was built around the belief that portable solar power would be the most reliable energy source for providing light before, during and after major disasters. In many ways, the solar lights were specifically designed to serve the purpose they went to in Haiti.

Cash said Sol has received letters from women who said the solar lights helped to relieve their fears of going for help or even to fall asleep in their tents. “We’re in southern Florida,” Cash said. “We’re not that far from Haiti here. We felt like it was our obligation.”

While solar helped Haiti through the darkest hours after the quake, several organizations are still working in Haiti to expand the scope of solar power there and integrate it into the country’s slowly developing infrastructure. The Solar Electric Light Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing clean energy solutions to developing nations, is working with nonprofit Partners In Health to install ten 10- to 35-kilowatt solar systems in clinics across the central plateau of Haiti.
The organization successfully installed a system at the clinic in Boucan Carre, Haiti last summer, allowing the clinic to run uninterrupted during the disaster in January, said SELF executive director Bob Freling.

His organization also received a $1 million funding pledge from NRG Energy through the Clinton Global Initiative in September to expand the use of solar power in Boucan Carre. SELF will work to install solar photovoltaic systems there that will power fish farms, drinking water, irrigation, streetlights, schools, clinics and other enterprises, Freling said.
“The idea is to turn Boucan Carre into a model community that can light the way for the rest of Haiti,” Freling said.
He said his organization has hired a full-time project manager in Haiti and expects to hire more staff there for all of its major upcoming projects.

Water purification has proven to be one of the most important applications for solar technology since Haiti was hard-hit with Cholera outbreaks this fall. World Water & Solar Technologies is operating five solar water purifiers in Haiti now, said marketing director Melissa Burns. The company had sent one of its systems to Haiti before the earthquake as a preparatory measure for hurricanes there. The system is equipped with a 3.3-kilowatt solar photovoltaic system and battery backup. It can purify 30,000 gallons of water a day using just half of the system’s solar generated power, Burns said. That’s as much water as a 747 jet could carry if fully packed with plastic water bottles, she said.

The other half of the solar power can be used to charge cell phones and computers and run lights. “The pay-back on our system, if you compare it to bottled water, is three days” Burns said. World Water & Solar Technologies is now looking for sponsors so it can expand its presence in Haiti. “With the Cholera outbreaks, water purification is even more relevant than before,” Burns said.

The portable solar systems, while especially helpful in disaster situations and in the after-math of disasters helping to repair broken lives, can become part of Haiti’s continuing infrastructure, Burns said. The company is trying to set up water purifiers in communities across the country.