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Andrew Burger headshot

Renewable Energy: “Development as Freedom” in Haiti and Beyond


Rapid transition from centralized energy systems based on fossil fuels to those based on a mix of distributed, locally appropriate renewable energy resources is viewed by many as the most effective means of mitigating and adapting to climate change. That's just the “thin edge of the wedge” with regard to the advantages and benefits societies can realize by spurring development and adoption of distributed energy resources and technologies, however.

Economists and development experts such as Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen have zoomed in on and elaborated the potential of distributed renewable energy resources and technologies to do much more than address climate change. Rather than focusing narrowly on climate change, Sen asserts in an August 2014 article in the New Republic, renewable energy proponents, and global society, would be better served if this perspective were to be broadened and refocused on the potential of distributed renewable energy resource development to alleviate poverty, enhance individual liberty and freedom, and hence foster development of more open, inclusive market-based economies and democratic forms of government.

An energy-and-development policy paper from the Worldwatch Institute invokes Sen's conceptualization of “Development as Freedom” as applied to Haiti, the most poverty-stricken nation in a region whose history is characterized largely by general poverty linked to political and economic repression and unsustainable extraction and exploitation of natural resources and ecosystems.

In its “Haiti Sustainable Energy Roadmap,” Worldwatch highlights that “tremendous opportunities and actionable solutions exist to build an electricity system that is economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable using the tremendous renewable energy and energy efficiency potentials of the country.”

Idyllic Caribbean vacations amid harsh realities

The idyllic Caribbean experiences sought so avidly by tourists and resort-goers the world over belie the harsh political and economic realities faced by citizens across the Caribbean-Latin America region.

“With their soft white sand and pristine ocean waters, their swaying coconut trees and bright blue skies, small islands in the Caribbean are often compared to paradise, René Jean-Jumeau, Ph.D., former Minister Delegate for Energy Security in Haiti, was quoted in a Worldwatch press release. “Yet they all struggle to attain the ideal supply of energy to serve their population. Availability of energy is…an absolute necessity for small developing countries, as a driver for their growth and contributor to social well-being.”

Petroleum imports account for 85 percent of Haiti's energy supplies, the Worldwatch report authors highlight, draining the economy and government of scarce capital and financial resources, as well as degrading ecosystems and natural resources upon which Haitians rely on for subsistence.

Despite siphoning off 7 percent of Haiti's GDP, only 25 percent of the Haitian population has regular access to electricity. The authors of “Haiti Sustainable Energy Roadmap” envision and lay out steps critical to developing, a mix of local, renewable energy resources that would enhance ecological and socioeconomic sustainability in Haiti.

Its study, Worldwatch explains, “compares the full economic and societal costs of Haiti’s current electricity sector and its business as usual development to that of alternative pathways.” The Institute's conclusion: “Haiti will benefit immensely if it relies more heavily on renewable energy sources and less on fossil fuels.

"There is hardly a place on Earth where the advantages of a distributed electricity system powered by domestic renewable sources are as evident as in Haiti,” Worldwatch Institute Climate and Energy Director Alexander Ochs writes of the study.

For example, the report authors highlight:
“Only 6 square kilometers of solar photovoltaic panels would be able to generate as much electricity as Haiti produced in 2011.

“In the absence of a national grid system, Haiti has an opportunity to leapfrog 20th century energy development, modeling a pathway to electrification and resilience that harnesses the enormous domestic energy resources the country has at hand and uses them locally and efficiently.”

Other key takeaways from Worldwatch's “Haiti Sustainable Energy Roadmap” report include:

  • The highest renewable energy scenario shows savings of up to USD 5.84 billion by 2030;

  • Up to 1,870 new jobs would be created, electricity access expanded, local air and water pollution reduced, and health and education improved;

  • Ambitious policies towards these goals would position the country – which already suffers from the consequences of extreme weather conditions – as a leader in climate change mitigation and adaptation;

  • Based on analysis of Haiti’s business environment, the roadmap suggests concrete regulatory, policy and institutional changes that will be necessary to attract new investments in clean energy solutions.
The need for a governing ecological ethic

For Sen and others, an environmental, as well as socioeconomic, ethic that recognizes and values social and natural capital  underlies and pervades public and private social and economic policy- and decision-making. Those same values support and inform Worldwatch's “Haiti Sustainable Energy Roadmap.”

Considered a classic work on political economy and development, Sen's “Development as Freedom” may be seen as anathema in societies where income, wealth and political power have been concentrated in plutocracies, oligopolies and monopolies. On the other hand, it rejects the premise that individual freedom and liberty need to be sacrificed so that progress and gains in living conditions and quality of life may be obtained.

This ecological ethic resonates across boundaries of political and economic philosophy, as well as geography. As such, the concepts set out in Sen and others' work can serve to bridge the divides of income, wealth, political representation, freedom and opportunity that have been polarizing and pressuring industrial and industrializing societies of all ideological stripes over the course of recent decades.

By providing access to affordable, environmentally sustainable energy resources, instituting policies and programs that foster widespread adoption of renewable energy technologies can serve as a keystone for development of more open, inclusive and equitable forms of capitalism and democratic forms of government. Blazing this path requires access to affordable, environmentally friendly energy resources and active participation, dialogue and a genuine commitment to social, political and environmental justice for all.

*Image credits: 1) BrightLeaf Power 2) Worldwatch Institute; 3) Amartya Sen, Amazon

Andrew Burger headshotAndrew Burger

An experienced, independent journalist, editor and researcher, Andrew has crisscrossed the globe while reporting on sustainability, corporate social responsibility, social and environmental entrepreneurship, renewable energy, energy efficiency and clean technology. He studied geology at CU, Boulder, has an MBA in finance from Pace University, and completed a certificate program in international governance for biodiversity at UN University in Japan.

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