Analysts say it's almost impossible to tease out where the problems begin, but a big one is that the average business in Port-au-Prince can't and won't depend on the state for power.
Take Patrick Attie, co-founder and dean of an information technology institute, the Ecole Supérieure d'Infotronique d'Haïti. Attie says he needs stable electricity to run his school's 10 computer labs serving about 850 students.
But if he relied on the state Electricity of Haiti company (EDH), Attie says, "we would be dead. We would be closed already."
Diesel and charcoal trump renewable energy
"It's very irregular, and we have no plan about when the electricity is going to be turned on and turned off. You never know when you're going to have it or not have it. You have to have your own infrastructure," Attie says. So he says he budgets an extra $40,000 to $50,000 each year to fuel a 200-kilowatt diesel generator, and paid for $20,000 worth of solar panels, inverters and batteries that keep one of his servers running.
"The ideal solution would be solar panels or wind energy, but it's still very expensive," Attie says. For now, while burning diesel is dirty and expensive, "we can't live without it. There is no question about that."
With businesses and manufacturing -- the very operations that use the most power and are best equipped to pay for it -- relying on private generators, EDH winds up asking homeowners to carry the bag, energy officials say. Consumers in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere with a per-capita income of $400, pay as much as 34 cents per kilowatt-hour.
To put that in perspective, the average homeowner in Washington, D.C. -- where the average per-capita income is $70,000 -- pays about 12 cents per kWH, according to the Department of Labor.
The result: People don't pay. Like Chamblin and others throughout the city, they devise illegal connections to fit their meager cooking and lighting needs. Haitian officials say EDH suffers $150 million annually in unpaid bills. Mired in more losses, EDH doesn't perform upgrades or invest in new capacity -- lowering even further the chances that private investors will take an interest in putting money toward Haiti's energy systems.
But Port-au-Prince's power chaos means steady business for people like Yves Brezeau, who lives by the side of the road near the southwest city of Les Cayes. He goes up into the hillside regularly to cut down trees and char the wood. He earns 250 Haitian gourdes (about $5) for every overflowing burlap sack of charcoal he fills to be trucked to energy-starved city dwellers.
"My cousin takes it all to Port-au-Prince," Brezeau says, showing off the charred sticks. He, like many of his neighbors in rural areas with no electricity access at all, prefers to use cheaper wood, coal and kerosene for his own cooking and lighting.
'This was all forest'
Gene-Rene Vaceus, a driver for the United Nations who returned to his native Haiti from New York a few years ago to retire, drives past the barren hills and says the verdant country of his youth is long gone.
"In the '60s and '70s, this was all forest. When I was a kid, it was complete forest," he says. Jutting his chin out the window at more burlap sacks of charcoal leaning against trees like tired men waiting at a bus stop, he says, "See that bag? If I were to go to Port-au-Prince with that bag, I could get 400 gourdes" (about $9).
The bare mountains terrify Marie-Louise Augustin Russo, executive director of the Disaster Management Alliance and Business Continuity Committee in Port-au-Prince. She works with companies in Haiti to prepare for floods, earthquakes and hurricanes.