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Nicaragua: Rural Areas, Model For Electrification

Published: Sun 9 Dec 2007 08:25 AM
Rural Nicaraguan Areas Are Model for Electrification System
For many who live in rural areas throughout the world, the basic technologies necessary for education, public health and economic development are not feasible because of a lack of electricity. But in Nicaragua, a U.S.-based nonprofit company, blueEnergy, is developing a model for low-cost, sustainable electrification of remote rural communities that can be replicated around the world.
"You can't just take a foreign technology, install it somewhere, give a week of training and then leave," says Matthias Craig, who came up with the idea for blueEnergy while a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). "BlueEnergy is a permanent presence," he added. "We're trying to build the context of how we can sustain an energy service."
What distinguishes blueEnergy from other companies selling wind and solar generators is its commitment to ensuring sustainable energy services that can be operated and maintained locally. "If we don't have the capacity to ensure proper installation, operation and maintenance, then we won't sell you a system," the company says on its Web site.
The blueEnergy company is working with a wind turbine specifically designed to be built "without high technology and without super-skilled labor," Craig said. "If you build the infrastructure to do the construction, then you already have the infrastructure to do the maintenance."
The blueEnergy system is a hybrid of solar and wind technology. The solar panels provide the power on calm, clear days, while the wind turbine generates power on cloudy, rainy days, which tend to be windy.
The power generated is stored in a centralized battery bank and then either used directly in DC appliances or converted to AC power with an inverter.
One of the biggest challenges is transportation, Craig said, "because where we work in Nicaragua, there are no roads."
DEVELOPING AN INNOVATIVE PLAN
Craig first became familiar with the difficulties of working in remote areas as a child. His mother was involved in efforts to document and revitalize Indian languages in Nicaragua in the 1980s and began spending several months each year there. "We started traveling down with her in 1989 to the Caribbean coast area, and throughout the years made several trips down there," he said.
When Craig was an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley, he had "one of those light bulb moments" while taking a course in renewable energy. He remembers thinking "that wind power was the perfect mix of international, environmentally friendly and interesting from an engineering perspective. I realized that was what I was going to do."
When he went on to graduate school at MIT, Craig continued to learn everything he could about wind power, although his field of study was information technology. "All of my spare time I was reading about wind power and talking to the people involved in it -- sort of building the infrastructure of what eventually became blueEnergy," he said.
As a class project, he had to develop a business plan for a product or service that would help the world's poor. His plan -- an early version of blueEnergy -- won in the global markets category in the MIT business plan competition that year. "It was a small prize, but it gave me the nod of approval that I needed to continue working on it afterward."
The plan kept evolving. "We were the worst investment risk possible -- high technology risk, high social risk, high political risk, high environmental risk and low return in a dispersed poor market," Craig said. The for-profit company he imagined had to be reconceived as a nonprofit. His brother and a friend came on board as co-founders, each bringing different talents to the organization.
"We didn't have any financial backing. That led to our moving slowly. There's a lot of work we could have done earlier on if we had had enough funding," he said. "You've got to go out there and do what you say you're going to do before anyone will even listen to you."
To date, the company has installed eight of its systems in six Nicaraguan communities on or near the Caribbean coast, with an estimated 1,500 beneficiaries. In 2008, blueEnergy plans to expand within Nicaragua, probably in the Puerto Cabeza area that recently was devastated by a hurricane. Once it carefully has developed and tested its project model in Nicaragua, blueEnergy intends to expand its operations to other countries.
This year, blueEnergy won the Accenture Economic Development Award, which was presented November 7 at a ceremony in San Jose, California. The Accenture Award is one of the Tech Museum Awards, which are given annually by San Jose's Tech Museum of Innovation based on the recommendations of international panels of judges. The top laureate in each of five categories -- health, education, environment, economic development and equality -- receives $50,000.
ENDS
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