In Haiti, philanthropy could lead to profits for NRG Solar

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Marc Gunther reveals how a chance encounter led to one of the most ambitious solar development programmes in the Caribbean - and a new market for a US energy giant

A startling encounter with a young boy got David Crane, CEO of NRG Energy, hooked on Haiti.

It was his first night in the Caribbean nation, months after the 2010 earthquake that killed more than 200,000 Haitians and destroyed 250,000 homes and 30,000 businesses.

As Crane tells the story, he and his daughter, who had traveled to Port au Prince to volunteer with the Clinton Global Initiative, left a cocktail reception to return to their hotel when she said, "Daddy, there's a body under the car."

A security guard gently kicked a boy of about 10, who emerged naked from beneath their SUV.

"This kid looked up at me," Crane remembers. "There was no life in his eyes. No hope. Complete nothingness. I was so shocked. There were any number of things that I could have done for that kid. I just stood there and did nothing, except act like a dumb American."

Since then, Crane and NRG Energy, its suppliers and its employees have done a great deal. He's been back to Haiti a half dozen times, often accompanied by his wife and five children. NRG made a $1m commitment through the Clinton Global Initiative and in partnership with Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) to bring solar power to rural areas of Haiti.

"I didn't mean to get so emotionally caught up in Haiti, but I did," he told me when we spoke by phone the other day.

Now, Crane says, he is hoping that what began as a charitable initiative will demonstrate the power of solar energy to spur economic development in poor countries. It could also help create business opportunities in the Caribbean for NRG.

"The basic idea is demonstrate the flexibility of solar, particularly in distributed applications, and the difference it could make in a country that does not have a functioning electricity system," he said.

In the last couple of years, NRG and its partners have installed a number of small-scale solar systems in Haiti, which suffers from an unreliable electric grid as well as high energy prices. They have completed projects at 20 schools and at a fish hatchery known as the Lashto Fish Farm. Their solar panels help power a drip irrigation system supporting agricultural production in Haiti's Central Plateau. The company also installed panels at an orphanage run by the nonprofit Partners in Health.

On Crane's most recent trip in mid-March, NRG volunteers installed solar panels on a number of buildings in a hospital complex known as the Hospital Bernard Mevs. Power there is so unreliable that medical personnel are sometimes forced to use headlamps and flashlights to operate and care for patients who need medical attention after the sun has gone down, according to this post on NRG Solar's blog. Solar power will help the hospital with its $60,000 monthly energy bill.

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