Michel Présumé, general director of Electricity of Haiti (EDH), leaned forward in his seat over Zoom, slightly raised his voice and started talking faster. It’s as though he could hardly wait to get to the last part of his sentence.
“There are places, since [Haiti’s] independence, that never saw electricity like Carice in the Northwest — never,” said Présumé, during an exclusive interview from an office inside EDH headquarters in Port-au-Prince earlier this month. “We’re building an electrical network there now.”
Présumé’s excitement and impatience mirror that of Haitians who can hardly wait to see Haiti fully illuminated with around-the-clock electricity. In February, residents in Saint-Raphaël, a rural commune in the Northern Department, shared a similar impatience when they unloaded electric poles from a truck in the middle of the night, instead of waiting for authorities to do it. In Corail, a commune in the Grand’Anse Department, residents transported electric poles by boat to the Cayemite Islands, which is among the 41 areas that have never had electricity.
The activity underscores the Jovenel Moïse administration’s efforts to provide electricity 24/7 in the entire country — albeit slowly. EDH started the project titled “Operasyon Relimen,” Creole for “Operation Relight,” in July 2020.
To date, five communes have enough megawatts to provide electricity non-stop: Marchand Dessalines, For-Liberté, Les Cayes, Cap-Haitien and Jeremie, Présumé said.
However, those communes only have between 12 to 18 hours of electricity because the electrical centers have to wait for fuel to get shipped in and for other logistics to be in place. Thirteen electrical centers have been rehabilitated. Electrical distribution networks are under construction in at least 34 communes.
While “Operasyon Relimen” is achievable, it faces several challenges that could prevent it from reaching completion, Présumé said. Finding financing sources, Haiti’s ongoing political crisis and violence, and a lack of fuel storage capacity are among the stumbling blocks.
“In Haiti, you don’t know what will happen tomorrow,” Présumé said. “If they put the country on lockdown tomorrow we’d have to put everything on hold. No one can say what they want to do today, they’re totally assured that they will do it.”
“It could take 20 years, five years, 10 years, 15 years,” Présumé added. “What’s essential is that we know where we’re going and we work to get there.”
Politics keeps country in the dark
Présumé cited politically motivated violence as one factor that has slowed down the project.
Moïse initially wanted to launch the project in 2017, and the government attempted to borrow $150 million from Taiwan to finance some of the work. Certain the contract would get approved, Moïse promised in July 2017 that Haiti would have 24/7 electricity in two years. But the Parliament never approved the contract.
“I promised to give electricity 24/7 but I wasn’t able to do so by the deadline I had hoped. I want to take the opportunity of this big day to apologize,” said Moïse during his New Year speech in 2020. “I miscalculated the power of the forces that are standing against me.”
After three years of waiting, Taiwan loaned Haiti $150 million without the Parliament’s approval in July 2020. High voltage lines are being installed in Port-au-Prince to transport energy to remote locations through that Taiwanese contract, Présumé said.
Because of the political crisis, the government hasn’t received much acknowledgment for what’s been done so far in their electricity project, experts said. Anti-Moïse supporters and opposition leaders rather focus on the blemishes of the project thus far.
Rene Jean-Jumeau, the executive director of the Haitian Institute for Energy, called for togetherness amid the political instability.
“One of the problems with electricity and energy is that we’re incapable of agreeing on a strategy,” Jean-Jumeau said. “When someone does something bad, if they like him they will still applaud. But when they don’t like him even when he’s doing something good, they say it’s not good.”
Jean-Jumeau added that Moïse’s successor should remain in the same direction concerning the electricity project.
To add to the politically motivated violence, residents regularly hold demonstration marches, especially in Port-au-Prince, that often turn into skirmishes between police officers and protesters. When demonstrators set up road barricades, with burning tires or other debris, EDH employees have a more difficult time moving around the capital to continue working.
Bandits also often threaten or physically assault EDH employees. For instance, on Jan. 1, a mob ransacked a sub-electrical station in Avenue N, Port-au-Prince and threatened to kill the employees.
In March, armed men fired gunshots at EDH’s headquarters in Bicentenaire, Port-au-Prince, killing a motorcycle taxi driver and injuring an EDH employee.
“What happened slowed us down. We have some difficulties now,” Présumé said on Facebook Live. “I wish they could’ve said that the electrical company is important to the country — like all the other companies, private or public — let’s protect EDH so it can keep providing.”
Funds needed continuously
Another stumbling block the government is facing in “Operasyon Relimen” is financing.
“We’re talking about billions and multiple billions,” said Présumé. “Because Haiti is a mountainous country, just to build the network will cost a lot of money. It’s going to need continuous investments. We suggested that the government — since it’s a vision — to keep pouring money in.”
Turkish energy company Karpowership, the Inter-American Development Bank and Atlantic Bridge Developments (ABD) have been assisting Haiti financially.
In December 2020, Karpowership shipped two floating power plants of 115 megawatts to Haiti. but Présumé said that the file had to be rewritten after receiving feedback from Karpowership.
As for ABD, they invested about $20 million in the installation and management of pre-paid smart meters and replacement of old smart meters that would make electricity more affordable.
In the industrial sector, residents are paying 13.97 gourdes per kilowatt-hour, significantly less than the cost to provide it. Kilowatt-hour is a unit of measurement equivalent to the amount of energy used to keep a 1,000 watt running for an hour.
Many residents haven’t been paying so EDH is in the midst of unplugging people’s power, Présumé said. More than 6 million Haitians live below the poverty line, according to The World Bank, another reason why so many of the country’s 11 million inhabitants cannot afford electricity.
“To have electricity 24/7, first the people need to work, they need money,” said Dimitri Vorbe on Facebook Live, the vice-president of SOGENER, a now-defunct electrical company no longer operating. “If you don’t pay, they will cut it because they won’t be able to keep providing it.”
Vorbe was talking to a Facebook user who commented that Jeremie has non-stop electricity last week.
Fuel storage and blackouts persist
In line with Haiti’s financial struggle for this project, EDH workers in the 24/7 project do not have sufficient equipment and vehicles to carry out their tasks. For instance, employees needed to fix a wire to light up Cité Chauvel, Cap-Haitien in mid-March but weren’t able to travel there because the unit only had one functioning car, said Pierre Blaise, the EDH spokesperson in Cap-Haitien.
Haiti also lacks the storage units required to contain the amount of fuel needed for non-stop electricity, Présumé said.
Some residents are frustrated because, contrary to statements by Moïse that certain areas can provide non-stop electricity, people continue to experience sporadic electricity.
Mathieu Widdly, a journalist based in Fort-Liberté, said he only has electricity 12 hours a day.
“There’s no electricity now. I don’t call it 24/7 project because I’m not crazy,” said Widdly on the morning of March 12, 2021. “It’s a project of improvement.”
Should electricity be the focus?
Widdly added that electricity shouldn’t be a priority because Haiti has many crises to take care of like the ongoing violence, unemployment and food insecurity. Many other residents have the same opinion but experts think otherwise.
“You can make an argument that electricity is one of the priorities of the country but definitely not the only one,” Jean-Jumeau said. “Electricity is essential to run businesses, for schools to provide better services, for women’s different tasks at home to be less stressful. For people to live a better life.”
Only 45 percent of the population had consistent access to electricity in 2018, according to The World Bank.
“It bothers me,” Moïse said. “That’s why I’m working so those problems can be solved. I say no one is stronger than the government when it’s trying to put things in order.”