In Haiti, Debates Over Electric vs. Gas-Powered Cars Are a LuxuryNever mind self-driving cars. The quest for “just enough” energy is a daily, sometimes life-and-death issue, as Kayla Garrett and Brian Thomas tell Robert J. Marks
In “Appropriate Technology: the Haitian Energy Problem” (October 13, 2022), Walter Bradley Center director Robert J. Marks interviewed engineers Brian Thomas and Kayla Garrett on a critical question: meeting the energy needs of a developing nation like Haiti sustainable — the only way it can be done:
A partial transcript, notes, and additional resources follow.
Robert J. Marks: Not all countries need the latest technologies. Those in Third World countries don’t need high powered computers or the latest car from Tesla. They have more fundamental concerns like, how do I feed my family tomorrow? Where do I get clean water? And where can I get power? These needs typically do not involve the latest edge cutting technology.
Supplying needed technology is referred to as appropriate technology. It’s technology needed by the poor and the marginalized. Today’s guests are with an organization called Just Energy, a small nonprofit that works in northern Haiti doing solar energy systems for hospitals, clinics, schools, and orphanages…
Among other things, they have volunteer engineering students travel to third world countries like Haiti to assist in the development of appropriate technology, and they don’t pay for the travel. The students typically raise their own support.
I’m an engineer. Those at Just Energy are engineers. Engineers are said to love things that don’t love back. The people that Just Energy are engineers that do love back through applying appropriate technology to poor countries. Representing Just Energy today are Kayla Garrett and Brian Thomas. Brian is an electrical engineer and Kayla is an environmental engineer.
Tell us more about Haiti and some of the work that you do there.
Kayla Garrett: We work in northern regions of Haiti, doing solar energy installations at civil work societies like hospitals, clinics, schools, orphanages. And this is done in a place where people, on average, are living on less than a dollar a day in many cases.
Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. So this work is crucial to the livelihood and flourishing of many people. Our team in the US, as you said, are all volunteers. We all have our own day jobs and gigs. But we also partner with a team of Haitians in-country on the ground that are part-time employees that do a large part of the heavy lifting in these operations. And together with that team, we’re designing, installing, and maintaining these solar energy systems with our main mission being to create jobs and increase energy access.
Robert J. Marks: That’s great. Brian, you turned me onto a documentary about how many charities hurt the countries that they’re trying to help. Do you remember the name of that?
Brian Thomas: I think that was Poverty, Inc.
Robert J. Marks: Poverty, Inc. And it was astonishing. A lot of organizations go into these third world countries and they hope to help, but they actually end up hurting the countries. I found that documentary very, very astonishing.
Brian Thomas: We find it very sobering… We don’t want to end up in somebody else’s documentary about how to do it wrong.
Robert J. Marks: You want to stay out of the documentaries. I can see that. But one of the things that you do is you work together with the Haitians. You don’t go in with this air of superiority. You work with them and some of the businesses that you start and some of the enterprises that you start, you turn over to the nationals.
One of the things that I remember talking to you about is work you did in Haiti. Now, this was a while back where you went around to individuals and set up solar panels so that people could come and recharge their cell phones and you turned that over to the nationals.
Brian Thomas: That’s right. We wanted to create little family businesses. And so yes, that little cell phone charging business is based on a single solar panel. And you’re right, we want to work ourselves out of a job. We don’t want to be in the business of making sure things stay up and running or replacing parts when they need to be replaced. One of the things we’ve done more recently with larger systems is, we do recognize that they’re going to need maintenance. And so we’ve established a team of Haitians to provide that maintenance and they get jobs out of that. So again, we are trying to get ourselves out of the work by enabling and empowering the Haitians to take care of each other.
Robert J. Marks: Where do the Haitians currently get their energies — electricity, for example?
Kayla Garrett: Typically most of this electricity is from privately owned gasoline or diesel generators, which is distributed across private poles and wires. Typically, even under normal conditions — which are not happening right now — but under normal conditions, only about 20 to 40% of the population of Haiti has access to a major electricity grid. But of the group that has access, nobody has access 24/7. And so mostly it’s privately owned household or business-owned generators. But that’s problematic in a lot of ways in that Haiti does not have any petroleum reserves of its own. That all has to be imported.
Robert J. Marks: So let me get this right, they’re individually owned and they are generating electricity. Do they make it available to their neighbors? Is that what you mean by a micro-grid?
Brian Thomas: Well, sometimes they do. It kind of depends on the owner. There’s, let’s say a bank or a business, they’ll run their own generator, they’re not going to share. But if it’s maybe an orphanage or a school, they’ll have their own generator. And when they fire it up, maybe they have some outlets that are made available for public use.
So people can hear the generator roaring and they come walking over to the orphanage or school or hospital and they plug in their cell phone to recharge it, or they plug in a rechargeable light that they can then take back home.
Robert J. Marks: I see. You mentioned that most of these generators are run by petroleum products. You shared with me the history of fuel shortages in Haiti. Could you walk through that? I found it very sobering.
Brian Thomas: There’s a history of fuel shortages in Haiti. I’ve been there a few times when there’s a fuel shortage. Let me tell you what it looks like to buy gasoline or diesel in Haiti.
There are gas stations, just like we have gas stations, but they’re subsidized. And so the price of gasoline is kind of locked. And it turns out, at least in today’s conversion rates, it’s about $2.15 cents a gallon, which sounds like a pretty good deal. The government subsidizes that price for the poor people to be able to afford it. But the lines get pretty long and sometimes they run out altogether. When they’re long lines, sometimes people have to wait all day long in order to fill up their car or their taxi, or even just a couple of plastic jugs that they use for storing gasoline. In fact, a lot of individuals buy cooking oil in these one gallon jugs and after the cooking oil has been used, they use that plastic jug to store gasoline in their homes, which is a bit of a fire hazard. I can tell you stories about that.
Brian Thomas: But there’s even violence, the closer you get in get to the pumps in these long lines, the more people want to cut in line and push ahead. And people, they turn out, they get in fights and it’s ugly. But really even more pressing than that is they run out, these subsidized gas stations run out of fuel, and then the gasoline has to be sold on the black market by what we call street sellers, what they call street sellers.
It is definitely illegal and there are definitely people profiting off of it. So some individuals are buying large quantities of gasoline either from the subsidized gas stations or they’re going over into the Dominican Republic and getting it, or it’s being captured by gangs. And then fuel is then resold a gallon at a time by these street sellers. And the street sellers, you’ll see them on the corner. You can ride your motorcycle up there and you don’t even have to get off the motorcycle, they’ll just pour right in the tank for you and you pay them in cash.
Now, the police will chase them off if they see them, but they’ll always come back because the retail gas stations, the retail filling stations, they run out. And so what are we going to do? We don’t have any. So sometimes during these shortages, the price gets really high. The longer the retail gas stations have been out, the higher the price gets. Recently, we saw prices as high as $25 a gallon.
Robert J. Marks: $25? Wow. That’s worse than United States.
Brian Thomas: If you think about that too, in the fact that these people make a lot less money.
Robert J. Marks: At a dollar a day, you have to work a month for a gallon of gas, roughly.
Kayla Garrett: On top of trying to supply every other basic need of your family.
Brian Thomas: So one of the results of this sort of thing that the businesses shut down, the banks shut down, they don’t have any electricity. And even scarier, the hospitals shut down. In fact, this happened last fall, fall of 2021.
A good friend of ours, the general manager of our operations, his wife was expecting a baby and she had a bit of a rough pregnancy. They had decided that she needed to have a C-section. They had the C-section scheduled, but what they didn’t schedule was the fuel shortage. The fuel shortage came and the hospital ran out of gasoline, ran out of diesel, and they had no electricity. So when they went for their checkup, maybe about a month before the C-section, they were told that they were going to need to bring their own gasoline to run the generators in the operating room.
Robert J. Marks: You’re kidding? So not only do you have to rush your wife to the hospital, you got to bring your own gasoline.
Brian Thomas: That’s right. Bring your own gasoline, if you can get it.
Kayla Garrett: And store it in your house with your pregnant wife.
Robert J. Marks: That’s terrible.
Next: More stories from life without a functional power grid — and some ideas about what to do about it
You may also wish to read: Technology only works if people use it. Introducing appropriate technology to an old culture includes careful listening, says engineering prof Brian Thomas. “We cannot assume that because it works in our culture, it will work in another culture,” he says.
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