STATEN ISLAND, New York — The 7.2 magnitude earthquake in August caused massive devastation in Haiti, killing over 2,200 people. More than 12,000 were injured, and nearly 137,000 homes were either damaged or destroyed. The earthquake affected millions of people in Haiti and caused many to lose access to electricity. Solar energy companies including the Solar Electric Light Fund are now working to deliver renewable electricity to the communities hurt by the disaster.
How Did the Earthquake Affect Haiti’s Communities?
The events of August 2021 posed several challenges for companies such as the Solar Electric Light Fund. Executive director Robert Freling described to The Borgen Project some of the obstacles his organization faced following the earthquake.
“It impacted almost all of the communities we are serving in South Haiti. The large city of Les Cayes suffered greatly, but the main hospital was left standing, and the vaccine fridges are operational. In more remote and rural areas we serve along the south coast, many people suffered. Homes collapsed, roads sustained damage and mountains even shifted in the Macaya area.” Freling says that the Solar Electric Light Fund’s electrical lines extend over 80 kilometers. Unfortunately, the earthquake interrupted service in certain areas. Solar Electric Light Fund was able to repair the grid quickly. However, the earthquake greatly affected some of the health facilities the organization was serving. This is problematic because many people were injured and did not have access to local medical treatment.
The Solar Electric Light Fund was not the only energy company to feel the impact of the earthquake. Another organization affected is EarthSpark International, a solar energy company serving 3,800 people in Les Anglais and Tiburon. EarthSpark’s President Allison Archambault responded to this situation, describing some of the personal losses her company experienced.
“Les Anglais was badly shaken. One of our colleagues suffered the unfathomably tragic loss of his daughter in the church collapse. Another lost her home completely,” Archambault said. “Roads were blocked off, and in outlying areas, farmers lost their crops to landslides.”
Although EarthSpark experienced setbacks and difficulties, the company recovered and is now working to continue providing electricity in its current communities.
“Both grids survived the earthquake with only minor damage, and the Tiburon grid remains energized,” Archambault said. “Due to the extensive damage in Les Anglais, the team de-energized the grid there to conduct safety checks. They were able to re-energize the system after just three hours and then provide continuous power. That’s notable since most other grids have been seeing multi-day or multi-week blackouts in the region due to the earthquake and fuel shortages.”
Archambault says that she and her company advocate for the mayor and the medical director of the health clinic in Les Anglais to communicate needs and ensure accurate representation across the many information channels that popped up in different languages and platforms.
“After ensuring the safety of our team and the grids, the local EarthSpark Team did what they could to help others in the town. We are electricity people, not health care or building specialists, so it was difficult to see the limitations of what we could do. We kept the power on, but that felt like a small thing in the face of the enormous need. As English speakers, our team was able to conduct medical translation and help coordinate with medical evacuations provided by the US Army and US Coast Guard.”
While EarthSpark International is doing its best to assist victims, the Solar Electric Light Fund is also making an effort. Freling says that the company offered immediate, remote support to technicians and organizations relying on Solar Electric Light Fund’s PV installations. The company is now looking to find funders willing to support repairs for health facilities and their much-needed PV systems.
What Can Solar Energy Do for Earthquake Victims?
“Solar energy is viable, cheap and very quick to implement,” Freling says. “It is a solution that can dramatically improve the lives of displaced populations in many ways, as we have witnessed many times in Haiti, starting with the Port-au-Prince 2010 earthquake,” Freling notes that photovoltaic technology can make a difference in many people’s lives, especially in Haiti, where access to electricity is already limited.
“PV-powered street lights can dramatically change living conditions in settlements and transition/refugee camps: homework for kids and much improved night security for women and girls. PV-powered fridges can help set up businesses, ensure food conservation, or store critical vaccines and medicine. Small, integrated, stand-alone home PV systems can bring light into homes and shelters, allow consumers to recharge their phones, and enable people to listen to the radio.”
Archambault’s answer to the question was similar to Freling’s. “Energy is essential for local autonomy, security, and prosperity,” she says. “Reliable energy services unlock opportunities. Microgrids have the potential to transform towns throughout rural Haiti into more secure and enjoyable places to live. Microgrids enable community services, local job creation, and overall well-being. We’ve seen aspects of life transform with the arrival of reliable microgrid electricity.”
The Power of Solar Energy
Solar energy is significant because it has the potential to help victims when disasters occur. In previous years, there have been many incidents where disasters cause people to lose access to electricity. Haiti is a country that already has a low electrification rate, with less than half the population having access to electricity. That is why it is important to ensure that residents have access to energy for the worst of situations.
“Electricity is not an emergency response,” Archambault says. “Electricity enables emergency response, and we were glad to be of service during the disaster. I found myself frequently saying, ‘we don’t set bones, and we don’t set building standards,’ though those two skill sets were in critical demand immediately after the earthquake. What we do is enable an infrastructure that has the potential to reduce the devastation of natural disasters.” Today, EarthSpark International continues to serve Les Anglais and Tiburon to build solar-powered electricity grids in an additional 22 towns in Haiti in the next five years.
With EarthSpark International expanding into new cities, assisting the people of Haiti. The organization has vocational centers to provide residents with training. The centers help those affected by both the earthquake and the pandemic.
“One aspect of our work is related to the support to the Ministry of Health with regards to cold chain equipment,” Freling said. “Through different projects and funding opportunities, we installed and repaired hundreds of solar-powered vaccine refrigerators in facilities across the country. Many thousands, particularly children, will continue to have access to vaccines.” Freling says that solar-powered refrigerators can reduce the number of deaths caused by COVID-19. The organization plans to continue to provide this service for many more years to come.
– Eshaan Gandhi