Off the Grid: An Expanded Solar Power System in Haiti

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New system will save money, ensure lifesaving care, and increase independence in unstable times 

Posted on July 6, 2023

Progress on the HUM solar project continues as the team installs racking and solar panels on the roof and upgrades wiring inside the hospital. (Photo: Jimmy Forest/PIH)

In the midst of political and economic insecurity and widespread violence, why is Zanmi Lasante (ZL), as PIH is known in Haiti, focusing on expanding and improving its solar power system? The answer is clear: The collaboration between ZL and Build Health International (BHI)— to replace and improve the solar panels atop Hôpital Universitaire de Mirebalais (HUM) —is key to energy self-sufficiency at the site, allowing for a stable, reliable source of electricity.  

The project will lead to increased functional independence, so the medical team can think less about non-negotiables (electricity, water, adequate facility space, etc) and more about providing patients with top-notch care. 

HUM already has a robust solar energy system, with 1800 rooftop panels delivering power. The new system more than doubles the solar production capacity and does not rely on the national grid. 

We spoke with members of the solar project team, including ZL Program Manager, Léonardo Virgo Charles; PIH Associate Director of Facilities, Forrest Shroyer; and HUM Facility Manager Dieudonne Fanfan to find out more about the plans. Here, edited and condensed, are their answers.   

What’s the main rationale for this project? 

Recognizing the vulnerabilities caused by HUM’s dependence on fuel-powered generators, the new solar system serves as a promising solution. Haiti’s current insecurity means that roads are often blocked, so accessing fuel is sometimes impossible. Other times, fuel might not be available at all or it is outrageously expensive on the black market. By harnessing solar energy, HUM will significantly reduce its reliance on fuel and the associated challenges of obtaining and maintaining a steady supply. 

How will the new system improve energy delivery? 

The project will more than double the current solar production capacity, from 509 kWp (kiloWatt-peak) to 1,316 kWp, and reduce a projected 2,298 tons of CO2 from hospital emissions annually. This will reduce reliance on HUM’s generator, leading to an estimated annual savings of $820,000 per year from solar alone, which can then be redirected to serve patients. Additionally, savings from the installation of high efficiency lighting and other improvements is estimated to add another $80,000 in annual savings. 

During the last year of instability, how often has HUM lost power to the point that it impacted hospital operations?  

During the past year, the escalating gang violence and instability in the region have posed challenges in obtaining an adequate fuel supply to power the hospital’s generators, not to mention the fact that the power on the national grid is unstable, causing HUM to rely exclusively on diesel-powered generators.  

Consequently, the hospital encountered power loss due to these circumstances approximately four to five times in November and December of 2022. Most of these outages were relatively short, lasting between one to two hours. However, there was one particular instance where the hospital endured an extended outage lasting nearly seven hours. All hospitals and services were interrupted. At that point, everyone at the hospital was mobilizing to find fuel and smaller generators to support critical services. 

These power outages have had a significant impact on the hospital’s ability to provide uninterrupted care to patients. Critical medical equipment, such as life-support machines and refrigeration units for medication storage, rely heavily on a stable power supply. 

How will the new solar project help doctors, medical providers, and patients at HUM?  

The new solar project reduces the number of hours necessary to run the generators from 24 hours per day to 4 or 5 hours per day. The main points here are accessing a more reliable power system and huge savings on fuel.

From a medical standpoint, the solar system will provide consistent and high-quality power supply to support biomedical equipment and critical HVAC systems. Biomedical equipment, including lifesaving devices and diagnostic tools, requires a stable power source to operate effectively. By eliminating power disruptions, the solar system enhances the ability of doctors and medical providers to diagnose, treat, and monitor patients, thereby improving the overall quality of care. 

Moreover, the solar system’s reliable power supply directly benefits patients. It ensures uninterrupted access to lifesaving essentials such as oxygen supply and other critical medical needs. This is particularly important for patients with severe health conditions who depend on life-support equipment or require constant medical attention. 

Through this initiative, PIH/ZL is creating a more sustainable future for health care in Haiti and establishing a model for environmentally-sound health care practices in resource-poor settings globally. (Jimmy Forest/PIH)

How many workers were hired for this project, and what percentage of them were Haitian? 

For this project, BHI has a dedicated workforce consisting of approximately 50 individuals per day, spread across the electrical and masonry crews. It is worth noting that an overwhelming majority, around 98%, of the workforce are Haitian nationals. 

What else is important to know about this project and why it aligns with PIH’s mission? 

Building solar capacity at HUM and across our sites deeply aligns with PIH’s mission because: 

–It ensures that lifesaving services continue despite fuel shortages around the country; solar capacity will ensure that critical services requiring electricity can continue even when other surrounding facilities and in Port-au-Prince can’t function; 

– Mindful that the climate crisis greatly impacts global health, we are working to reduce our carbon footprint;  

– Investments now lead to cost-savings. For example, our site at Belladere has been fully solarized since February 2023 and the need to transport fuel has been significantly reduced (fuel consumption reduced by 70%); enabling us to save money for fuel and put it towards patient services such as women’s health, nutrition, or oncology, among others. 

With this additional solar power and upgrades to the system, how will you manage storage?  

The new system includes 12 large Tesla battery cabinets which will be used for energy storage.  

As mentioned above, HUM relies exclusively on diesel-powered generators and has been disconnected from the grid for at least 8 years. Therefore, no power will be collected from the grid. 

When will the new solar power system be complete? 

Currently, we are actively engaged with BHI in the installation of the new solar system. The new system will likely be ready for use in the coming months.  

Originally published on pih.org

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