CANAPÉ VERTE, Haiti -- Robert Naylor walks the perimeter of an electricity substation high above the earthquake-battered capital of Port-au-Prince, pointing out new batteries, switches and transformers that his construction company, Perini Management Corp., installed here as part of a $12.7 million U.S. Agency for International Development project to strengthen Haiti's energy infrastructure.
This substation and others were damaged in the 2010 quake, and the United States is investing in repairs to the transmission and distribution systems as well as the installation of new equipment and worker training. But below the substation's chain-link fence, a jumble of cut and spliced wires snake from the overhead power line toward a cluster of makeshift shacks. Naylor points to the creative electricity connection undermining his company's hard work and shakes his head.
A few winding streets below, 26-year-old Forestal Chamblin walks past the patchwork of corrugated metal and fraying tarp structures at the "ENAF2" camp city, which he and about 300 families who were displaced in the 2010 earthquake still call home.
"Yes, we take. We take it secretly," Chamblin says, shrugging, as he glances up at dangling wires. Tall and wiry himself in jeans and a white T-shirt, Chamblin leans against one of three 1,000-gallon water tanks that were filled regularly in the months after the earthquake but that, residents say, have been empty now for a year. Getting a legal electricity connection is out of the question for residents of ENAF2, he says. "There are no jobs for us, so we cannot pay."
More than three years after Haiti suffered the worst natural disaster in its history, its recovery has been excruciatingly slow. Still, people here say, there is more progress than first meets the eye: new roads, schools and even a state-of-the-art teaching hospital about a half-hour away from Port-au-Prince.
In energy, there are a few signs of light as well: a new USAID-funded industrial park on the country's north coast aimed at electrifying 1,800 households, as well as steady improvements to substations like the one at Canapé Verte; solar-powered street lights in the capital; and the presidential appointment of a widely acclaimed Cornell University-educated electrical engineer as the country's new minister delegate for energy security.
Slower going, experts say, is breaking the vicious cycle of antiquated transmission networks, theft, corruption and poor maintenance crippling Haiti's power sector.
A snarl of good and bad intentions
Exhibit A: circuit breakers. Speaking inside a mobile trailer atop the substation, Naylor says one of the things he found when he started the project was a jumble of unmatching equipment from various governments that had provided aid in the past. With nearly no regulation from the Haitian government, he notes, there was little to stop each donor nation from insisting that its own companies provide parts. The result was outdated and almost unfixable switch gears and circuit breakers from Canada, France and several other countries.
"Unfortunately, when you take donated items, you take what you can get. But when one thing breaks and there's no specs and there never has been any ... well, now these poor people need 10 circuit breakers because every one is different. So instead of things being solved, they just put a Band-Aid on it," he says.
His job, Naylor says, includes a redesign that has redundancy built into the system -- basically, duplicated spare parts -- so that Haitian workers can maintain and repair it. The costs are comparable, he says, and the system is sustainable long-term.
But then there's the theft. "Most people don't have a job and can't pay for power, so a lot of power in Haiti is stolen," he explains.
Analysts say it's almost impossible to tease out where the problems begin, but a big one is that the average business in Port-au-Prince can't and won't depend on the state for power.
Take Patrick Attie, co-founder and dean of an information technology institute, the Ecole Supérieure d'Infotronique d'Haïti. Attie says he needs stable electricity to run his school's 10 computer labs serving about 850 students.
But if he relied on the state Electricity of Haiti company (EDH), Attie says, "we would be dead. We would be closed already."
Diesel and charcoal trump renewable energy
"It's very irregular, and we have no plan about when the electricity is going to be turned on and turned off. You never know when you're going to have it or not have it. You have to have your own infrastructure," Attie says. So he says he budgets an extra $40,000 to $50,000 each year to fuel a 200-kilowatt diesel generator, and paid for $20,000 worth of solar panels, inverters and batteries that keep one of his servers running.
"The ideal solution would be solar panels or wind energy, but it's still very expensive," Attie says. For now, while burning diesel is dirty and expensive, "we can't live without it. There is no question about that."
With businesses and manufacturing -- the very operations that use the most power and are best equipped to pay for it -- relying on private generators, EDH winds up asking homeowners to carry the bag, energy officials say. Consumers in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere with a per-capita income of $400, pay as much as 34 cents per kilowatt-hour.
To put that in perspective, the average homeowner in Washington, D.C. -- where the average per-capita income is $70,000 -- pays about 12 cents per kWH, according to the Department of Labor.
The result: People don't pay. Like Chamblin and others throughout the city, they devise illegal connections to fit their meager cooking and lighting needs. Haitian officials say EDH suffers $150 million annually in unpaid bills. Mired in more losses, EDH doesn't perform upgrades or invest in new capacity -- lowering even further the chances that private investors will take an interest in putting money toward Haiti's energy systems.
But Port-au-Prince's power chaos means steady business for people like Yves Brezeau, who lives by the side of the road near the southwest city of Les Cayes. He goes up into the hillside regularly to cut down trees and char the wood. He earns 250 Haitian gourdes (about $5) for every overflowing burlap sack of charcoal he fills to be trucked to energy-starved city dwellers.
"My cousin takes it all to Port-au-Prince," Brezeau says, showing off the charred sticks. He, like many of his neighbors in rural areas with no electricity access at all, prefers to use cheaper wood, coal and kerosene for his own cooking and lighting.
'This was all forest'
Gene-Rene Vaceus, a driver for the United Nations who returned to his native Haiti from New York a few years ago to retire, drives past the barren hills and says the verdant country of his youth is long gone.
"In the '60s and '70s, this was all forest. When I was a kid, it was complete forest," he says. Jutting his chin out the window at more burlap sacks of charcoal leaning against trees like tired men waiting at a bus stop, he says, "See that bag? If I were to go to Port-au-Prince with that bag, I could get 400 gourdes" (about $9).
The bare mountains terrify Marie-Louise Augustin Russo, executive director of the Disaster Management Alliance and Business Continuity Committee in Port-au-Prince. She works with companies in Haiti to prepare for floods, earthquakes and hurricanes.
She's particularly worried about the denuded hills surrounding the northern port city of Cap-Haitien, where the combination of deforested hillsides, inadequate drainage and substandard housing literally condemns the area to furious flooding. More than 10 people died in November after stormwaters crashed through the impoverished area. Were an earthquake to rock Cap Haitien followed by a tsunami, Russo says, she doubts the city will survive.
"The houses are poorly made, and the streets are narrow. If the houses ever collapse, people will not be able to run for their lives. They will be stuck. And it's all exacerbated by the fact that there are no trees," she says. Sometimes, she says, when driving past bare mountains, "I say to myself, 'Oh, my God, all these trees, they went to Port-au-Prince for charcoal.'"
The Haitian government is slowly trying to untangle the threads of the country's interwoven climate change and energy problems. EDH has announced work on new transformers and is installing about 40,000 meters that can be read remotely in an effort to curb theft. But critics say change isn't happening fast enough. Energy Minister Rene Jean-Jumeau says his country badly needs a clear energy policy to drive private investment but acknowledges that bureaucratic inertia and uninterest seem to be winning the day.
Slow walking to a distant solution
"We've been working on it for 10, 15 years, and it's never been published," he says. "Not understanding the importance of it is one of the reasons that what may seem obvious for other countries is, for some reason, not obvious here."
And to the frustration of many who work in Haiti's energy sector, an anti-electricity theft bill that has been in the works for two years was recently resubmitted, ensuring even greater delays.
"Things move incredibly slowly here," says Mark Konold, a project manager for the Worldwatch Institute's climate change and energy program. Fresh off meetings in Haiti to discuss potential renewable energy plans with the government, state electricity company and other players in the country's energy market, Konold calls the lack of political will in the Haitian government to tackle the hardest problems like theft disheartening.
"Generation is a problem, but it's not the only problem. I personally think the larger problems are things like collection and theft, and the grid not being extensive enough or strong enough," he says. "There really needs to be a very firm signal from the president."
But Naylor, who worked in Port-au-Prince before the earthquake, saw the pride of Haitians in the aftermath helping one another because the government could not. He says he remains hopeful that Port-au-Prince at least will see full energy access in the near future. Taking apart the problem piece by piece, he says, is the key.
"Commercial customers don't buy power from EDH because it's not reliable. If Haiti's grid could become stable, customers like the manufacturers would be willing to tie in, and you'd have a revenue stream that will reduce costs." But, he says, "To build a sustainable grid you need to generate revenue, but you can't bring people out of poverty overnight. Nobody is ever going to come into Haiti and solve all the problems, but you take a piece."