Seven years ago, NRECA International began a pilot project in northeast Haiti—funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development—to demonstrate how a utility can provide reliable, sustainable power to a nation where most people don’t have access to electricity.
Today, the private Pilot Project for Sustainable Electricity Distribution is the only utility in Haiti—public or private—that provides electricity 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The 10-megawatt plant runs on diesel and heavy fuel oil and serves about 13,600 metered customers in and around the Caracol Industrial Park, which includes large garment factories and other businesses.
The USAID is expected to extend NRECA International’s contract in June through the end of the year. In 2020, the Haitian government plans to sign an agreement with a private investor to operate the utility now that NRECA International has demonstrated it can work.
“We demonstrated that, with improved service, people are willing and able to accept this type of utility,” said Fernando Mercado, director of programs for Latin America for NRECA International and the director of the pilot utility.
But acceptance from the Haitian people did not come easily.
Haitians aren’t accustomed to a privately run utility that expects its customers to pay their electric bills in exchange for service. This is a challenging proposal in a country where most clients are accustomed to poor service from Electricité d’Haïti, the national utility. EdH serves a fraction of Haitian households and businesses with sporadic service and frequent blackouts. Haitians feel they shouldn’t have to pay for such bad service.
“People believe that all services should be provided by the government for free,” Mercado said. “This has led to electricity theft in PPSELD where reliability is very high. The culture needs to be adjusted to support payment for a high quality of service, and this requires government involvement to enforce payment when theft occurs.”
NRECA International, which operates the utility with a team of experts and about 110 Haitian employees, has used a combination of education and enforcement programs to dramatically reduce theft.
The utility conducts a monthly review of electricity loss data from more than 300 distribution transformers. Crews are sent out daily to inspect household connections and meters in every neighborhood where thefts are high, Mercado said. Illegal connections are immediately disconnected and violators are fined.
At the same time, the utility holds community meetings and talks directly to consumers to emphasize that stealing electricity will only raise costs for everyone and undermine the utility’s ability to provide sustainable service.
In the past two years, the theft of electricity in former EdH communities connected to PPSELD service plunged from over 50% of power delivered to about 13%, Mercado said.
“Gradually, people began to change their attitude,” Mercado said. “They started to value having electricity 24/7.”
Mercado said his biggest remaining challenge is to gain the support and participation of Haiti’s judicial system to enforce laws governing electricity theft. It’s not enough for utility crews to take photographs or videos of people stringing power lines to connect their homes illegally. Judges want to witness the theft directly and, even then, it may not be enough for them to act.
The Haitian government is now seeking to privatize its entire electric power system and has begun seeking bids for the nation’s 10 regions, Mercado said. A new legal framework to support the utilities should be implemented immediately if the Haitian government wants to attract investors to expand electricity coverage, he said.