First Microgrid in Haiti: The Road to Feminist Electrification

June 21, 2016
After developing the first microgrid in Haiti, Earthspark is now working on 80 more — and encouraging the rise of feminist electrification along the way.

The EarthSpark team spent five years developing their first microgrid in Haiti. Inaugurated in June 2015, it is currently serving 449 homes and businesses with affordable, reliable electricity 24/7. The grid contains 93 kW of PV panels, a 30 kVa generator back up and 410 kWh of battery storage. Learn more about the technical details of the first microgrid, the value of a smart meter system, and how the team plans to build 80 more microgrids by 2020 below in an interview Heatspring’s Gabrielle Rossetti conducted with Rachel McManus, EarthSpark’s executive director.

This article is part of Heatspring’s Sustainable Women Series.

What is EarthSpark’s mission?

EarthSpark is a U.S. based non-profit with a mission to eradicate energy poverty. Our method is to do the research and development (R&D) on business models that can spin off and scale to address specific aspects of energy poverty. So far we’ve spun off Enèji Pwòp SA in Haiti and a smart meter technology company, SparkMeter Inc., in the U.S. We are currently focusing on our work in Haiti, but see the business models we are using to address energy poverty in Haiti being relevant in other areas.

What do you do in Haiti? What is the smart grid project?

EarthSpark has been working in Haiti since 2009. We started working in the town of Les Anglais, which is about 1.5 hours from the closest national grid connections. After a baseline study of the community, we identified a need for basic home lighting. Solar lamps and cookstoves are a great solution for this, but weren’t available on the market at that time. Over the years we developed the brand Enèji Pwòp (“Clean Energy” in Haitian Creole) and then spun it off officially in 2014. Enèji Pwòp has sold over 18,000 solar lights, solar home systems and clean cookstoves across Haiti since the beginning.

Throughout the years, however, we recognized the potential for microgrid development in Haiti. Les Anglais has a fairly population dense downtown and enough economic activity to make it sustainable. So over about 5 years we developed our current microgrid model. It wasn’t easy and we are still figuring it out. We even had to develop our own metering technology, which is now our spin-off SparkMeter which has customers in 7 countries.

The current grid was inaugurated June 1, 2015. It is serving 449 homes and businesses with affordable, reliable electricity 24/7. The grid contains 93 kW of PV panels, a 30 kVa generator back up and 410 kWh of battery storage. The grid powers large businesses in town as well as basic lighting services for customers on only 30W of power. So, it is powerful enough to power industry and progressive enough to serve every customer in its footprint.

Through our smart meter system, customers pre-pay for their electricity by topping up their accounts with local vendors in the same way that they pay for phone credit. This means they are only consuming and paying for what they can afford to pay, when they can afford to pay it, instead of being stuck with a large bill at the end of each month. The meters also allow us to have different tariff levels, load limiting and time-of-use pricing to optimize system use. Aside from having a cleaner, more reliable source of energy, our customers are saving 50-80% over the cost of what they were using before!

How are you supporting local entrepreneurs in the sale of stand-alone solar products?

Basically, clean energy products like solar lamps and efficient cookstoves can be a hard sell for some retailers. Firstly, there is a high up-front cost to the products so it takes some time to show the customer how much they will save over time. Also, in order to use the product for a long time (and continue to save money on kerosene and candles!) customers need to know how to use and care for the product, especially since many won’t have had any experience with these technologies.

To help support our retailers in making more sales, we partnered with behavior change advertising firm 17 Triggers to come up with an innovative suite of marketing and business tools. Some of these explain how to best take care of products and how to seek after sale technical service while others help visualize the cost savings and health benefits of these products. We also came up with some really professional branding materials and graphics to help the entrepreneurs feel more part of the company.

To launch these materials we held entrepreneur certification training programs in 5 cities in Haiti. In total, we trained 109 entrepreneurs!

What has been the biggest funding hurdle?

We see a reluctance by some funders to fund infrastructure at the scale we are trying to achieve. Solar lights are life-changing tools, but we need to invest in infrastructure to unlock real economic potential with larger loads.

A lot of people want to know when we will break even or what our cost per connection is. We want to operate as a social enterprise, but business models for projects like this take a lot of time and won’t be fully commercial. No electricity system in the world was created fully commercially.Having said that, we have been very grateful to our generous donors so far and couldn’t have done what we have done without the people who have supported us.

What is ‘feminist electrification’?

For us, feminist electrification means streamlining gender concerns at every step of the process of electrification and recognizing the unique value of women in the electrification process and how it impacts them.

Around the world there is a lack of women in STEM fields, and in Haiti this is even more pronounced. While we weren’t able to find trained women technicians, we did employ and train local women to help with some parts of the home installations on the grid. We have recently set up an energy committee in Les Anglais and tried to ensure that we had women voices on the committee as well. Right now, 4 out of 10 members are women.

In terms of recognizing the unique value of women, I sometimes feel that discussions on women and energy access around the world focuses too much on clean cooking. Clean cooking technologies are important to women, particularly in the health and environmental benefits. But women are also impacted by electricity (not to mention that you can cook with electricity)! Aside from the obvious benefits to women and children of having clean lighting in the home, we have seen several women starting businesses on their own since we turned on the grid. For example, one of them, Asholo, started an ice cream business and is now selling 100 ice creams a day to school kids! Frankly, I don’t see men coming up with income generating ideas like this.

What are your goals for the next few years?

With our Haitian partner, Enèji Pwòp (@EnèjiPwòp on Twitter), we have set the ambitious goal of building 80 grids in Haiti by 2020. We’ve got one done so far and hoping to do three more in the next year and prepare an investable plan for the next tranche of 20-40. This will electrify approximately 40,000 homes and businesses in Haiti.

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