Marisa Plumb: Fifty kilometers outside Grand-Goâve, Haiti, we’ve run into a problem. A river runs across the road we’re on, and it’s the only route to a town called Anse-à-Veau. I’m with a seven-person team trying to deliver a solar energy unit to the town, which isn’t connected to the grid. Finding a way to drive through the wide body of water without ruining our cargo has been the challenge of the day.
Michelle and Paul Lacourciere, the founders of Sirona Cares, the foundation running this solar project, are used to these kinds of challenges by now. Earlier in Grand-Goâve, they swapped a pickup track for a flat-bed truck with higher clearance, and a dozen people constructed a makeshift ramp from plywood. It took everyone’s help to push the 3000-pound machine into place.
Known as a SunBlazer, the unit we’re hauling is basically a solar charging station on wheels. It consists of six solar panels that charge 40 battery kits. With funding from the IEEE, a company called Nextek, in Long Island, New York, built six SunBlazers. This summer, all of them were distributed to rural communities in Haiti.
While you may see power lines in many parts of Haiti, a lot of them haven’t been operational since the late eighties. EDH, Haiti’s public utility, currently serves less than 15 percent of the population. Michelle explains that the project is a way to serve customers that EDH can’t currently reach.
Michelle Lacourciere: We are not competing with the utility, we’re complementing them, so we’re trying to service people who are not currently reached by EDH—they love the fact that we’re going into dark areas and getting people used to paying for electricity.
Marisa Plumb: When we finally reach Anse-à-Veau, everyone is relieved to find that the SunBlazer made it in one piece, without water damage.
The team sets to work getting the unit set up. Project leader Ray Larsen and engineer John Lorts don’t like the way the SunBlazer is precariously perched on the side of a hill. However, the steep, rocky terrain leaves few other options. They agree that the best they can do is level the unit with cement blocks and large rocks.
Now that the unit is secure, the next step is to teach local operators how to use it— how to extend the solar panels, crank them to an angle that will absorb the most sun, and switch on the flow of energy to the batteries in the bed of the trailer. Each battery kit comes with two 4-watt LED lights and is designed for a typical Haitian home. In addition to providing light, the batteries can charge radios and cellphones.
Paul also reminds the operators that this is a business opportunity: Customers will pay a monthly fee to use the kits.
Michelle Lacourciere: The goal is to create a sustainable project which is economically sustainable, and we needed to be sure that people would be willing to pay for electric light in their home, and if they would, then we could lease operators equipment so that they could recharge customers’ homes and then repay for the lease, and the lease payments would allow us to repay investors. So we needed to create a cycle of sustainability. These are extremely poor people, but they are paying a significant amount of their income towards energy in the form of kerosene. So we checked to see what they were paying for kerosene for cellphone charging, for candles, those kinds of things, and we set the price at 50 Haitian dollars to start.
Marisa Plumb: That’s about 10 percent of an average monthly wage in Haiti. Sirona Cares will cover the maintenance and any repairs that the units need through field technicians that will visit each location once a month.
We go into the new operator’s multigenerational home to test a lighting kit. First, we show everyone how to hook up the LED lightbulbs. Then we hit the switch. The cinderblock walls are suddenly bathed in light, and there are smiles all around. Many of the children in the area have never had electric light in their homes.
Michelle Lacourciere: Almost all of the units at this time have waiting lists filling up for more units because the people in the area are desperate to have the kits at their homes.
Marisa Plumb: In July, shortly after completing all six installations, there was great news: The program is already providing light to around 1400 people.
Michelle Lacourciere: They’re getting between 3 and 7 days’ worth of use out of them. They’re able to run radios for the first time for several days, and they don’t need to buy batteries. So they’re ecstatic about being connected to the world both by charging their cellphones and by radio. It is truly—it’s life changing, and people are so excited to have the opportunity—to have one of those kits in their home.
Marisa Plumb: Future plans involve lowering manufacturing costs and doubling the number of customers by the end of this year. The ultimate objective is to reach 1 million people within five years. Michelle thinks they can do this because the project creates both power and jobs. Employment is at the heart of her and Paul’s vision for sustainability in rural Haiti.
Michelle Lacourciere: Once you have jobs, then you can start tackling the other issues associated with poverty. So you can reverse poverty when you have an employment scheme that’s working.
NOTE: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners and may not perfectly match their associated interviews and narratives. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum’s audio programming is the audio version.
Additional information about the project: The first SunBlazer units were developed through a partnership between the Sirona Cares Foundation and the IEEE Community Solutions Initiative (CSI). Funding for the initial pilot phase of the SunBlazer project also came from the IEEE Humanitarian Technology Challenge, the Nuclear and Plasma Sciences Society, the Power and Energy Society, and IEEE Canada. Now Sirona Cares is responsible for the operation of the program.
The first six SunBlazer units, which have been installed as locally run businesses in various communities around Haiti, were custom manufactured on Long Island. There, a company called Nextek donated its top engineer to design and manage construction of the solar systems. Russell Engineering, in California, donated the initial mobile trailer concept and design. The chassis and solar panel frames were built by Duramax in Indiana.
Now CSI and Sirona Cares are looking for additional funding to complete production and installation of another nine SunBlazer pilot units. Following this phase, a new Haitian corporation, Sirona-Haiti, will raise venture capital to manufacture 4500 systems in five years to light up the homes of at least a million of the 8 million people in Haiti without electricity.