At the close of a summer in which environmental news was dominated largely by record temperatures, devastating drought in the U.S. Midwest, and lackluster progress at the Rio+20 summit, reasons for optimism can seem few and far between. But in two seemingly unlikely places—countries commonly (though simplistically) associated with poverty, ecological disaster, and violence—renewable energy projects are demonstrating their ability not only to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but to power economic and social recovery.
In both Haiti and Rwanda, recent stories of progress and achievement reveal how renewables are powering national development from the ground up.
Haiti: Building back better
In the wake of Haiti’s disastrous 2010 earthquake, which thrust the country once more into the international spotlight as tragic victim, the Haitian government and international organizations voiced the intention to “build back better.” The goal was to ensure that the post-earthquake rebuilding process focused not only on reconstructing fallen buildings, but on making sure that the country as a whole became more resilient.
According to the Haiti Regeneration Initiative, Haiti currently faces four major challenges: post-earthquake recovery and reconstruction; economic and social development; environmental stabilization and restoration; and increasing resilience against future hurricanes, floods and earthquakes, and economic shocks. A crucial element for achieving all four of these goals is the extension of affordable, reliable, and sustainable electricity services.
The Haitian government recognizes the importance of electricity access. In January 2012, the government launched the “Ban m limyè, Ban m lavi” (“Give me light, give me life”) program, an ambitious plan to extend electricity access to 200,000 rural households over the next two years. The program demonstrates an explicit commitment to making rural electrification a central component of the country’s broader development strategy.
Given the limited functionality and reliability of Haiti’s electrical grid, there is significant potential for using distributed generation – power generated from small, on-site generation units – in health clinics, hospitals, schools, and businesses. Historically, institutions and organizations that could afford it relied mostly on expensive and environmentally destructive diesel generators. Increasingly, however, groups are turning to renewable sources of distributed generation, demonstrating the critical links between renewable energy and sustainable development.
The Mirebalais National Teaching Hospital, built with the support of Partners In Health and its sister organization Zanmi Lasante, will provide improved health facilities and medical education. It is powered by roof-mounted solar photovoltaic panels, which provide 400 kilowatts of electrical power—enough to offset daytime consumption. ENERSA, a Haitian manufacturer of solar panels and appliances, has begun installing solar equipment at hospitals, in villages, and at agricultural facilities, underlining the crucial role of Haitians in establishing renewable energy companies and initiating and developing successful projects.
Although many of these projects are relatively small, serving individual facilities rather than providing power to the broader Haitian population, they illustrate the ability of renewable technologies to create real progress on the ground. They could serve as models for future energy sector development based on a scaling-up of successful distributed renewable projects, especially in rural regions.
Rwanda: Transformation and stability
In Rwanda as well, renewable energy is playing a key role in transforming a country once devastated by violence. To most Americans, this East African nation is still heavily associated with the 1994 genocide that resulted tragically in the deaths of between 500,000 and 1 million people. In the 18 years since then, however, Rwanda has experienced strong economic growth and steady social gains, prompting the World Bank to describe the country as “among the most stable on the continent” and the African Economic Outlook to highlight improvements in health care, education, poverty reduction, and gender equality. Concerted efforts to improve Rwanda’s business environment resulted in the country being named a “top performer” in the Doing Business Report 2010, one of the 10 most improved economies in 2011, and the third easiest place to do business in Africa in 2012.
Surveying these recent gains, Josh Ruxin, Director of Rwanda Works, is encouraged: “This country has certainly come farther…than even the most optimistic observers would have predicted.” According to Ruxin, the crux of Rwanda’s strategy—not only in fueling economic growth, but also in encouraging social cohesion and reparation—has been to focus on providing affordable, reliable services, including electricity, to its population.
“It has been the government’s express policy,” Ruxin wrote in a New York Times op-ed, “to deliver basic services and economic growth to its people in order to mitigate genocide ideology…. Access to electricity and running water, both inconsistent five years ago even for those who could pay for it, is being constantly improved.”
Although Rwanda’s power-sector infrastructure has improved in recent decades, the country’s national electrification rate remains an abysmally low 7 percent—far lower than both the regional and continental average. The government’s goal is to raise this share to 30 percent by 2020, including by adding 42 megawatts of small hydropower capacity by 2015 and developing additional sources of energy (including geothermal and waste-to-energy) to diversify the power sector. Rwanda is already home to the largest single solar installation in Africa, the Kigali Solair plant, which generates 250 kilowatts of power and feeds into the national electricity grid.
Recognizing new realities
The progress being made in Haiti and Rwanda is important to recognize. For one, it illustrates the degree to which renewable energy sources are already contributing to concrete improvements in health and education, as well as to climate change mitigation. Highlighting these developments is critical, especially during a U.S. presidential election year in which renewable energy has become a political punching bag.
Moreover, it is clear that popular conceptions of countries like Haiti and Rwanda need to change to accommodate new realities—stories that go beyond the images of violence, devastation, and poverty that have dominated the Western media. Such a shift will allow government officials, foreign donors, and international organizations—in both developing and developed countries—to move forward as true partners in the effort to expand renewable energy.
Katie Auth is a Climate and Energy Research Associate at the Worldwatch Institute.