Luc Bretous, who works with Haiti's Inter-Ministerial Territorial Planning Committee, noted that tropical storms and hurricanes already are a reality for his country. In 2012 alone, a series of disasters including the summer tropical storm Isaac and October's Hurricane Sandy destroyed agricultural yields, roads, homes and infrastructure -- particularly in the south and western regions.
"It is expected that we will have more hurricanes, and the hurricanes will become stronger. That's a huge issue for us, and we are already so vulnerable," Bretous said.
Untangling the reasons behind energy poverty in Haiti is as complex as getting to the root of poverty itself in this country rocked by centuries of oppression, occupation, corruption and neglect -- and in recent years beset by food shortages, economic decline and a series of natural disasters. But as energy experts look to Haiti's future, many insist they see a bright horizon.
"Haiti is starting from scratch, which is a challenge but also presents an enormous opportunity," said Alexander Ochs, climate and energy director at the D.C.-based Worldwatch Institute, which has been conducting assessments of sustainable energy resources in Caribbean nations including Haiti.
Renewable energy or coal or nothing?
While the specter of small islands sinking into the sea gets top billing at international conferences, experts say the question of from where islands will get their future energy is an often ignored but critical one. From the Maldives in the Indian Ocean to Barbados in the Lesser Antilles, small-island leaders are increasingly looking for ways to wean their nations off the oil and diesel imports on which they've come to depend.
Caribbean islands, Ochs said, tend to have more developed energy systems than those in the Pacific -- with the exception of Haiti. But, he argued, the absence of a national grid in Haiti can actually help it avoid becoming heavily dependent on the oil imports that suck away billions of government dollars each year in neighboring Jamaica and Dominican Republic.
A renewable energy assessment Ochs' team conducted with the support of the Haitian government showed a number of promising things, including that almost all the country has high levels of the solar radiation needed to harness solar photovoltaics. Meanwhile, wind resource maps showed three regions with particularly high potential, all near major population centers.
"The potential is there," agreed Mark Konold, who is developing the clean energy road map as Worldwatch Institute's project manager.
Haitian leaders, for their part, are proceeding carefully. Jean-Jumeau noted with frustration that after the catastrophic 2010 earthquake, big-name energy leaders from all over the world tried to push grand visions of national solar energy solutions on his country, with little understanding of what might and might not work. Fossil fuels including coal, he said, are sources that Haiti has the right and the need to explore. He said the nation has about 40 years' worth of lignite that could be developed.
"We have to look at the development options that are needed today. The amount of power that is needed to make a difference in the short term needs to be developed by proven energies," Jean-Jumeau said, though he emphasized he believes fossil energies are "to be used cautiously."
"Energy is indispensible, be it in education or tourism or industry or agriculture. But if we're not careful, we could eventually create more harm than good," Jean-Jumeau cautioned. Still, he said, "The people that we all know and care about, the people who are living, breathing people who want a better life, who are struggling for a better life and who are looking to us to help provide that -- well, that doesn't seem to matter to a number of people throughout the world who just want a laboratory to develop their ideas."