An Uncertain Road Ahead for Haiti’s Cooking Fuel Sector

The Haitian government has identified energy as a key priority for the country’s future, providing direction for the Secretary of State for Energy to weigh various energy options. Previous posts have examined Haiti’s strong solar and wind generation potential. However, considering that only 5 percent of Haiti’s total primary energy is currently used for electricity production, it is extremely important to consider other energy uses.

An aerial view of the border between Haiti (left) and the Dominican Republic (right). Only 3 percent of Haiti's forest remains. The charcoal and fuelwood industries have contributed significantly to deforestation. (Photo source: NASA)

Haiti depends heavily on charcoal and fuelwood for cooking services. About 95 percent of Haiti’s 10 million people use these fuels for their daily cooking needs, and charcoal (39 percent) and fuelwood (32 percent) account for 71 percent of the country’s total energy consumption.

Unfortunately, Haiti remains one of the most deforested nations in the world, with only 3 percent of its original forest cover remaining. Since fuelwood and charcoal – simply the product of wood heated in an oxygen-free environment – are derived from the remaining forest cover, the current energy industry is clearly unsustainable and Haiti needs to find suitable replacements for these fuels in the near future. There are many alternative energy sources, but a robust analysis of the economic, environmental, and social consequences of each is necessary for making informed decisions regarding future energy development.

Haiti’s charcoal industry has led to many other hardships for the country. Deforestation has increased erosion, thereby polluting the country’s rivers, increasing its susceptibility to flooding, and damaging its most important sector: agriculture. Cooking with charcoal also leads to serious indoor pollution, causing respiratory illnesses in a nation that is already plagued with many other health concerns.

While Haiti’s charcoal industry is unsustainable and detrimental to the general health of its population and environment, there is no denying that it provides the country with important economic services. The charcoal industry employs an estimated 200,000 people, making it possibly the largest employer in Haiti. The charcoal industry also generates hundreds of millions of dollars for the economy, which is important considering the country’s GDP is only $6.7 billion and 77 percent of its people live on less than US$2 a day. The livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Haitians depend on the charcoal industry, and displacing this industry could potentially lead to socioeconomic challenges. Therefore, when evaluating potential cooking fuel substitutes, it is important to consider not only their technological feasibility, but also the impact each substitute may have on local populations.

Recently, liquified petroleum gas (LPG) has gained traction as a possible cooking fuel replacement. LPG offers several advantages over charcoal, including that it burns more cleanly and is not harvested from the country’s quickly disappearing forests. A major issue with LPG, however, is that it is not locally produced. Already, 71 percent of Haiti’s electricity production comes from imported oil. Replacing charcoal with LPG will commit Haiti to a similar future, requiring the country to spend even more money than it already does importing expensive petroleum-based fuels. Developing Haiti’s local economy and providing rural populations with alternative ways to generate money should be at the forefront of any national energy policy, and there are several solutions to Haiti’s dependency on charcoal that can achieve these goals.

One solution is to increase Haiti’s market penetration of efficient cookstoves. Efficient cookstoves should be considered in addition to any fuel substitute; they reduce the cooking fuel need of a consumer, thereby decreasing a stove’s environmental impact and reducing the share of a family’s income that goes to purchasing cooking fuels. While efficient cookstoves are not the end-all solution (they do not displace the charcoal industry or prevent the future importation of LPG), they go a long way to mitigating environmental and economic costs.

In addition to efficient cookstoves, kerosene, ethanol, waste paper briquettes, solar cookers, biochar, and biomass pellets have all been recommended as possible replacements for charcoal. Although these technologies and fuels have environmental and economic benefits when compared to charcoal, they also face many barriers to widespread implementation. For example, waste paper briquettes are beneficial because they generate local jobs and facilitate the productive use of paper and cardboard and recycling of metals, glass, and aluminum. However, people within the industry admit that there is not enough paper and cardboard in Haiti to replace charcoal, and that the briquettes industry will likely remain small. Similarly, although cookstoves fueled by kerosene would be cost competitive with LPG or efficient cookstoves, analysts believe kerosene’s strong effect on the taste of food will prevent it from becoming more popular in Haiti. Despite their challenges, though, these innovations should not be ignored and can play a constructive role in Haiti’s energy future.

There are many potential fuels and technologies that could play an important role in replacing Haiti’s unsustainable charcoal industry. Another exciting alternative is the jatropha tree, which will be the topic of my next blog.

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