San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Solar Power Looks to the Heavens for Energy Answers

JINOTEPE – Frederic Bastemeijer wakes up to the wind and whistle of his energyproducing windmill that towers 15 meters above his family’s countryside cabins.

Along with the solar panel on top of his roof, the converter and the half-dozen car batteries in the shed behind his house, the whole system costs about $5,000.

Standing beneath the towering windmill on a recent afternoon, he explained that for the next 25 years he shouldn’t have to pay any electric bills. The only cost will be refilling the batteries.

“The good thing is with these batteries it’s just a matter of filling them up again with acid,” he said. Bastemeijer estimates that it would cost him about the same, if not more, over the next 25 years for his family to power the farm on the country’s electric grid.

In a country where power-rationing blackouts are a common occurrence and only half of Nicaraguans in the countryside have access to the electricity grid, the private market for alternative electricity is booming as tourism and other sectors take advantage of the abundance of sun.

While the Ministry of Energy and Mines has several projects to power rural communities with alternative energies (NT, April 25), private sector and non-governmental initiatives seem to be leading the way in making solar energy more available.

California native Donn Wilson has made solar power a selling point at Fincas de Escamequita, his eco-community south of San Juan del Sur.

“Solar is more dependable than Unión Fenosa power, better for the environment as we are not burning fossil fuels, and much more sustainable,” Wilson said, referring to the Spanish company that distributes power in Nicaragua.

Wilson includes solar energy in the price of the lots for clients.

“By not giving the option of conventional power, we have set our stake in the sand,” he said.

The growing demand for alternative energy in a country where 80 percent of energy production is oil-based has created a small but growing solar-energy sector in Nicaragua, according to Larry Sombrana, engineer for solar energy company Suni Solar. There are at least a half-dozen such companies that provide solar energy systems – known technically as “photovoltaic systems” – for residents and businesses in Nicaragua, he said. Particularly popular among eco-friendly hotels are the company’s solar-powered water heaters.

Suni Solar also provides small solar panels for $80 that can power a laptop or a cellular phone, “for when you go on a trip to the countryside,” Sombrana said.

The solar market is growing exponentially, and not just in Nicaragua. According to a recent study by the Washington, D.C.-based Earth Policy Institute, solar cell production jumped 50 percent in 2007, which is why it’s said to be the fastest-growing alternative energy market.

Many non-governmental organizations are spreading the technology throughout some of Nicaragua’s most isolated communities.

“There’s not a lot of public sector stuff. It’s basically private sector,” said Peter Coleman, field director of the non-governmental relief organization Peace and Hope Trust. The group has a four-year project in La Barra, a tiny riverside community along the Matagalpa river near Pearl Lagoon, supplying more than 100 families with energy from a solar-powered grid. Families pay a small fee to charge batteries similar to car batteries to take home with them, according to Coleman.

Coleman calls those living in the community “some of the poorest and most isolated” in the country.

The organization, which draws off donors from the United States and Britain, plans to expand the project to the nearby community ofWalpa in hopes of supplying some 50 families with energy there.

Though critics say solar energy requires large investment and produces insufficient amounts of energy,Wilson has found that by educating clients about solar energy and using income from lot presales to invest in the technology, the project has been feasible.

“We have perhaps ‘lost’ some sales to people who demand air conditioning and widescreen TVs and the like, but those who are willing to sacrifice some amenities have not been at all adverse to solar.Many, in fact, have embraced us for it,” he said.

As for Bastemeijer, a French-Dutchman who serves up exquisite French cuisine at the Jardin de Orion restaurant in Granada, he hopes to soon turn his solar and wind-powered family cottage into a small eco-tourism project.

“I would like to start this summer,” he said, “for people to tour around.”


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