Four Years After The Earthquake, Haiti Looks To The Sun

A solar-powered hospital offers a glimmer of hope in a country still mired in poverty, and the after-effects of the massive 2010 earthquake.

Working on the roof of the University Hospital of Mirebalais
Working on the roof of the University Hospital of Mirebalais
Jean-Michel Caroit

MIREBALAIS — Four years after the earthquake that killed more than 220,000 people and continues to weigh on one of the poorest countries in the world, the University Hospital of Mirebalais has become the symbol of what could be regarded as a “happy” reconstruction of Haiti.

Mirebalais, just outside the capital of Port-au-Prince, opened in May 2013 and is the world’s largest solar-powered hospital, according to the groups Partners in Health (American) and Zanmi Lasanté (Haitian) that built the facility and manage it with the Haitian Health Ministry. The 300-bed hospital, which uses advanced equipment in its emergency and neonatal care units, has some 1,800 solar panels that produce enough energy for all the building’s needs. The surplus is redistributed by the national grid.

The hospital was conceived in 2009, and at the time it was envisioned as a small health center for Mirebalais, a town of just over 15,000 inhabitants. But after the earthquake, the government requested the project be expanded into a regional hospital and training center for doctors and nurses.

The $25 million project was nurtured by the connections and experience of Dr. Paul Farmer, founder of Partners in Health and a close friend of Bill Clinton’s. He managed to convince many to help fund the project. Artists for Haiti, a foundation created by actor Ben Stiller, raised $2.7 million, while the American Red Cross contributed $5.5 million.

When Bill Clinton, who had been appointed the UN’s special envoy to Haiti, visited the construction site in March 2012, he underlined “the extraordinary potential of solar energy to better rebuild Haiti.” But this potential hasn’t been as celebrated as it should be, even though “rebuild better” was the catchphrase after the earthquake.

Wood and wood coal are still the main sources of energy in Haiti, and have largely contributed to the deforestation of the country despite recommendations to develop renewable energies. Solar energy is particularly needed in this tropical country where less than 25% of the population has access to electricity.

And there have been some successes. In the year that followed the earthquake, several NGOs and international organizations distributed more than 50,000 solar lamps. Private hospitals, orphanages and fish farms were equipped with solar material thanks to the Solar Electric Light Fund, an American group that received funding from the Inter-American Development Bank.

In addition, the Knowledge and Freedom Foundation (FOKAL), created by Haiti’s former Prime Minister Michèle Pierre-Louis, equipped several schools with solar panels. To combat against assaults and rapes, solar street lamps were even installed in the many camps that today are still home to 146,000 to 170,000 victims.

But this is far from enough. A year ago, Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe promised that the state-owned company Electricité d’Haiti (EDH) would be able to supply energy to the people of Haiti 24/7. But instead of improving, the supply of electricity has in fact worsened because of the financial and technical difficulties that EDH is facing. Power shortages became frequent during the holiday period. The solar-powered traffic lights in the capital stopped working, and as a result, the usual traffic jams grew even bigger. Entangled in a dispute with the administration, private company Axxium stopped carrying out maintenance.

“There’s no policy that encourages alternative energy,” laments Jean-Jacques Sylvain, who co-founded Green Energy — a company that sells and installs solar equipment. “The government doesn’t support solar investments. There’s no tax incentive, and we have to pay between 30% and 40% tax on the equipment that we import.”

In the meantime, Mirebalais looks like a glimmer of hope.

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

— Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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