Solar Energy to Power Rural Countryside

May 2, 2008

MANAGUA – The Sandinista government hopes a rural solar energy project backed by micro-financing through the World Bank will help flick on development in the impoverished countryside.

“Energy is the core of development and economic activity,” said Harold Somarriba, an engineer at the Ministry of Energy and Mines who manages an alternative energy project in several small communities in Nicaragua’s Caribbean region. He said the government is hopeful it can create a sustainable market for solar powered energy in rural areas.

“This is the energy of the future. It’s the most viable alternative,” Somarriba said. Under the program, campesinos will be able to get low-interest loans to buy batteries – and eventually solar-powered lanterns – to be charged at solar-energy centers set up in a handful of poor, rural communities in the Caribbean.

The World Bank and the government are subsidizing the energy projects in small agricultural communities through microcredit agencies, such as the Nicaraguan Financial Investment Corporation (FNI), in an attempt to create a market for alternative energy production while at the same time developing sustainable solutions for communities faced with extreme poverty.

“They’re subsidizing existing microcredit agencies so they can afford to lend to small buyers. I think it’s very interesting” said Susan Kinne, founder of the NationalEngineeringUniversity’s (UNI) Alternate Energy Source Program (PFAE).

The California native, who moved to Nicaragua 18 years ago, founded a similar project in a mountain town near the Honduran border to train locals how to use solar energy technology to power their community and local businesses. Women in the community now use solar power to produce products such as dried fruits and coffee, and to construct sun-cured adobe homes.

Nicaragua “is a country with very little existing infrastructure, so it’s got a chance to start building it’s infrastructure based on knowledge,” Kinne said last week at a conference on alternative energy at the UNI.

Somarriba said the solar centers – where locals go to power up their 12-watt batteries in an eco-friendly version of filling up a gas tank at the pump – will also provide energy for projects that benefit producers. For instance, the solar centers can power cold milk storage tanks in ranching communities where dairy products drive the local economy.

The solar centers will primarily be built in productive communities where small producers will generate enough income to pay back the low-interest loans, Somarriba said. The microloans could also stimulate entrepreneurship, he said.

The project is part of the government’s larger plan to use solar and other alternative energies to help light up Nicaragua, where only half the population has access to electricity, power shortages are common, and energy fraud runs rampant.

The European Union put up more than half of the 2.5 million euros for a plan to install solar panels in 42 schools in the North and South Atlantic Autonomous Regions, RAAN and RAAS, according to Energy Ministry engineer Sergio Torres.

The panels, which will be installed in October, will not only bring the communities electricity, but also power their telecommunications and Internet, as well as water filters and refrigerators to store vaccinations at health clinics.

The Energy Ministry has similar plans to install windmills to power the Caribbean communities of Sandy Bay, Laguna de Perlas and Puerto Cabeza with $250,000 from the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB).

C.J. Colavito, an engineer graduate from Virginia Tech University, has been living in a town near the Honduran border for the past 10 months training local women how to use solar equipment. At the recent UNI conference, he stood at a booth next to a group of Nicaraguans cooking plantains in a parabolic cooker – basically a large metal bowl that reflects the sun’s heat onto a small pot in its center.

“They all know how to use this technology,” he said.

He said he recently took some of the town’s solar-dried coffee to friends back home in the United States, and it was well received, opening the possibility of exporting the community’s solar-produced goods sometime in the future.

“The idea is to create sustainable jobs for them with renewable energy,” he said.

 

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