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Solar traffic lights shine on chaotic Haiti

posted 12 Dec 2010, 08:45 by Mpelembe   [ updated 12 Dec 2010, 08:47 ]

Amid the confusion and chaos that has shaken the Haitian capital of Port au Prince this year, shines a beacon of reliability. The city's traffic lights, powered by solar energy, have brought a measure of order to the city. Despite a massive earthquake, a cholera outbreak and tumultuouis elections this year, the lights just keep on shining.


PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI (DECEMBER 6, 2010) REUTERS - Amid the chaos and confusion of January's magnitude 7 earthquake, as survivors scrambled across crumbled buildings and aftershocks rattled the earth, many of Port-au-Prince's traffic lights continued blinking steadily, maintaining their daily routine.

Day in and day out, they changed methodically from red, to green to yellow reliably guiding traffic through the debris and bodies clogging the streets, thanks to dozens of solar panels positioned throughout the city that were storing and feeding energy to the lights.

Traffic lights at 45 Port-au-Prince intersections operate on solar-power. The project to connect them to solar power began in 2004, as part of a partnership between the Haitian government and a Canada-based technology company Axxium.

Emmanuel Vaval is the founder, president and CEO of the Axxium affiliate in Haiti. He developed the idea of the solar-powered traffic lights after witnessing the chaos and confusion that defined Port-au-Prince traffic every day.

Cars, trucks, motorcycles and tap-taps - rattletrap pick-up trucks that serve as the city's public transportation system - clog the streets from early in the morning until late at night. Drivers often charge through intersections, swerve into opposing lanes and regularly come within inches of hitting pedestrians or other vehicles.

Denis Barby is local IT businessman who finds himself caught in Port-au-Prince's traffic free-for-all on a daily basis. Reliable traffic lights are a necessity, he says.

"Well, I believe that traffic lights are important, they prevent accidents, crashes and beyond that, they give each vehicle time to cross intersections. And for the pedestrians too, they can wait for the cars to pass and then the cars stop so that the pedestrians can cross," he said.

With power outages almost a daily part of life in Haiti, Axxium owner Vaval says that solar energy is currently the only way to guarantee reliability in traffic lights in the Caribbean nation, which is the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.

"The concept of solar traffic lights is very necessary. We couldn't have much faith that the national electricity system would keep the traffic lights working, while the solar panels work 24 hours a day and have the capacity to sufficiently store energy to keep the lights working autonomously for three or four days even without sun," he said.

Vaval says Axxium has installed solar traffic light systems at 45 intersections in Port-au-Prince, six in the southern city of Jacmel, one in the northwestern city of St. Marc and four in the southern city of Cayes.

The system is run by a central computer out of Axxium's office in Port-au-Prince where technicians test and configure the solar panels to the specially designed traffic lights.

The panels are scattered throughout the city, with two panels providing power to four lights at a total cost of $US31,300 per intersection.

Vaval says the practicality of the solar lights was evident after the January earthquake when power was knocked out for days.

"After January 12, we were the only source of energy that was visible after the earthquake. It was very important to see that thanks to these solar traffic lights that the people could be directed - it was only the solar energy that could store sufficient energy after January 12 to allow traffic to circulate in the streets," he said.

For now, Vaval is focusing his solar traffic lights only in Haiti, but is working to expand to the Antilles and eventually wants to take the project to other countries within the next three to five years. He said he is also working on solar-powered street lamps and has placed hundreds throughout Haiti with plans to continue building more. In addition, Vaval says he is working to develop solar-powered "walk / don't walk" signs to manage pedestrian traffic in Haiti's cities and hopes to see those implemented over the coming years.