Written by Philip Beard, 17 June 2008
Joseph Marino, President/CEO of DC Power Systems in Healdsburg, CA, and his longtime friend and facilitator Philip Beard arrived in Nicaragua on May 22, 2008 for a 2-week stay.
The main purpose of their visit was to investigate potential sites for solar energy installations, to be undertaken in tandem with Green Empowerment.In 2005, the two had coordinated the installation of a 9-kW photovoltaic system for the María Luisa Ortíz Women’s Clinic in Mulukukú — to date the largest photovoltaic array in Nicaragua. The following are Philip’s notes on the trip.)
Joseph and I were scheduled to meet Green Empowerment’s Gordy Molitor in Matagalpa on May 28.We had a full schedule before then: first to Ometepe for two days’ sightseeing, then to Belén to visit old friends, to Rivas to renew a 10-year-old acquaintance with the ecofarming NGO called CIVITE (Centro integral de vida y tecnología), San Juan del Sur to check our a wind turbine installation there, and Mulukukú to trouble-shoot a serious battery problem. Douglas Gonzales, general manager of the solar contractor Suni Solar who’d collaborated on the Mulukukú installation, hooked up with us for the Rivas, San Juan del Sur, and Mulukukú segments of the trip.
At CIVITE we talked for over an hour with the center’s director, Agustín Alvarado, about the directions the organization had moved in during the ten years since I’d first met them.The most interesting recent change from the point of view of potential solar power applications was that Agustín and fourteen other ecofarmers were forming a cooperative to more effectively share information, equipment, bulk purchases, and marketing strategies.And that cooperative group all faced the same serious problem: Their well pumps are all powered by diesel generators, and diesel fuel now costs over $5/gallon in Nicaragua – enough to break them if they can’t find a cheaper source of power.
Querying Agustín for relevant information about farm sizes, daily water requirements, gross annual income per acre assuming adequate water pumping, etc., Joseph did one of his inimitable back-of-the-napkin calculations to conclude that a small investment fund of a few thousand dollars would suffice to finance a pilot installation of several solar-powered, battery-backed well pumps.This capitalization would be lent to the farmers, who would pay back the loan over as few as four or five years after installation of the new system.From then on, they will own the system, never again having to pay a cent for the power they need to get their water out of the ground.And the example they will be setting, in both the agricultural and financing aspects of the plan, should be easily replicable in other parts of Nicaragua and the world at large.
We’ll be communicating with Augstín by email to work out the details of the plan.We’re hoping that we’ll be able to raise the modest investment amount needed through Green Empowerment and other sustainability-oriented funding sources.
From Rivas we motored in our Toyota Prado 4-wheel-drive SUV up to Mulukukú, where the next day we diagnosed the battery problem: Too much heat in the room housing the batteries, a defective automatic battery-watering system, and unauthorized extra loads had contributed to their early breakdown.Appropriate design changes – better ventilation, manual watering, and a more stringent education program to prevent overloading the system – will hopefully preclude any recurrence of this vexing and expensive problem.
II.Side trip to El Cuá with the ATDER – Benjamin Linder Group
After two days in Mulukukú we motored to Matagalpa to meet Gordy at the new “Café Artesanos”, run by our good friend Noel Armando Montoya.It was great to see the joint hopping that evening.It’s become the new hot spot of the city, mainly because it’s the only place in town that serves a wide variety of mixed drinks (some 40 of them).Great coffee too.The next morning we went first to the main office of Green Empowerment’s collaborator ATDER-BL. (The ATDER stands for “Associación de trabadores de desarrrollo rural” or Association of Rural Development Workers; the BL stands for Benjamin Linder, the first U.S. citizen killed by the Contras during that 10-year war, in which over 30,000 Nicaraguans, or about 1% of the nation’s populace, lost their lives.)
The office is located in Matagalpa though most of the hydroelectric work the group does is in the El Cuá – Bocay area further north – the area Ben Linder was working in when he was assassinated in 1987. There we met Aleyda Morales, ATDER’s office manager, who would guide us to El Cuá to meet the redoubtable Rebecca Leaf, a U.S.-born engineer who had been working with Ben when he was killed, and has continued ever since to promote his legacy of hydro-powered electricity for the people.
Our first day in El Cuá, after meeting Rebecca at the local ATDER office, we journeyed perhaps fifteen miles out of town to the hamlet of Pita del Carmen, where ATDER in 2000 had overseen and funded the installation of a 30-kW micro-hydro system that serves 300 families previously without electricity.
Even more impressive was our next day’s visit to ATDER’s facility at El Bote that produces nearly one megawatt of power at peak flow.This installation provides all the electric power consumed by the ~ 15,000 people in the entire El Cuá – Bocay area, with surplus power sold into the national grid.
Going on line in 2006, it was built over a three-year period with a $2.2 million interest-free 30-year loan from the World Bank, negotiated by Rebecca Leaf.(She recounted that the only hitch was that the loan had to be routed through the Nicaraguan government, and the latter is charging 5.5% annual interest on it! She’s currently lobbying hard to have the interest rate reduced.)
Here’s the dam, and the powerhouse below the falls:
In all, some very impressive testimonials to ATDER’s wonderful work. Ben Linder would be justly proud indeed. And Green Empowerment should be proud of its support for the group’s continuing work.
III.The “Hogar Amiguitos” Protection Center for Abused Children in Jinotega
Gordy, poor fellow, came down with some pretty debilitating back and leg cramps the day after our visit to El Bote, and had to spend the next three days mostly resting at our hotel in Matagalpa, where he was ministered to by acupuncturist Natalí Montoya (Noel Armando’s sister; the Montoya clan is very well represented in Matagalpa!). That meant he couldn’t accompany Joseph and me to visit the so-called “orphanage” in Jinotega that Joseph had learned about, to see whether it was indeed the strong candidate for a donated solar energy system similar to the one we’d installed in Mulukukú.So we set off without him.Jinotega is about an hour north of Matagalpa on a not-too-pot-holey road, and thanks to its altitude enjoys an even pleasanter climate.
Hogar amiguitos (roughly “Little Friends’ Home”) isn’t really an orphanage, it turns out, though everybody calls it that. Only two of the currently 18 kids living there are without parents, but all of them have been severely abused – beaten, raped, the works – so they might as well be orphans. The place is run by a 32-year-old lady from Mississippi named Joy Pulsifer, who’s been overseeing it for the past three years. It’s one of three such outfits in Nicaragua, all under the umbrella of Globe International, a faith-based NGO with programs for disadvantaged children in many countries.
I’ll be honest: I was worried that we’d find an institution heavy into proselytizing à la the Pentecostal churches that have sprung up all over Nicaragua in the past ten years, that favor high volume (achieved via monster loudspeakers) over devotional substance. But my fears were assuaged after just a few minutes’ talking with Joy. Her dedication to the welfare of the children in her care was palpable, her demeanor calm and purposeful in the midst of the sort of kids’ cacophony that one would expect at a place where happiness rules. Yes, the home has its devotional side: They say grace before meals, and at least on the Sunday we were there (and perhaps on weekdays as well), a morning hour was spent studying the bible. But as Joy explained it, her core purpose lies in providing a productive, participative future to kids whose past lay in the opposite direction.
The children are healthy. All attend a public school within walking distance of the Center. The Center’s parklike, farmlike grounds cover 6-plus acres. The children and staff raise chickens, pigs, and rabbits; they also plant tomatoes, carrots, cauliflower, cabbage, lettuce, beans, and bell peppers, as well as tending various tropical fruit trees. They participate in the upkeep of the orphanage and care of the animals, and in all aspects of farming and gardening. Older kids help care for the younger kids.
Joy’s goal is “to give them a hope and a future. They’ve come out of the worst situations, but we help them become the best they can be, including taking responsibility for their country and their environment.”
So why does Hogar amiguitos need help, when they’re doing so well?
Joy receives no salary, a sparse budget of $2100 a month to meet all the Center’s expenses (including electric power; food for the children, herself, and her intern staff; expensive gasoline and repairs for the center’s jeep which frequently must journey 3 hours to Managua other incidentals) – and she says she’d rather be nowhere else in the world, doing no other work.
But her electric bill comes to $375 a month – nearly 20% of her whole budget. Joseph and I envision installing a donated photovoltaic system that (depending on the level of funding we can raise) will provide from 50% to 100% of the center’s electrical needs, thus freeing up its tight budget for other crucial purposes such as staffing increases and diet enhancement.
The children’s safety is also an issue. Kids don’t stop running around just because the lights go out, and the inefficient, foreign-owned, badly-maintained national grid sees to it that the lights go out often. Obviously, running around in the dark is not safe, nor is losing the ability to communicate with the outside world. The new photovoltaic system, with its battery backup, will keep strategic light circuits, office circuits for external communication, and other crucial functions up and running when the grid goes down.
So we’re issuing an appeal. We’ll put up $15,000 toward the cost of installing the system – assuming others will match that amount. Once we’ve achieved the match, we’ll up the ante till we’ve reached the total amount we need for the system that will come closest to matching the Center’s energy needs.
Before we can know what that ultimate system will be, we need to get the results of some assessments we’re having run. The above-mentioned Suni Solar will send an electrician to fully analyze the grid supply to the Center and all its wiring, and a structural engineer from Asofenix, another Green Empowerment collaborator, will accompany him to assess the carrying capacity of the Center’s roof, which may need to be reinforced. (We made these arrangements two days later at the Asofenix office in Managua, with the mercifully restored Gordy leading the discussion. Natalí had given him the name of a good acupuncturist in Managua, and he’d had the first of his two very helpful treatments there. I know what kind of health care I’ll seek out next time I have a muscle go weird on me.)
Here’s our new friend, Joy, with Joseph:
The next day, our last of the visit, Joseph and I sought out three other solar contractors doing large amounts of business in Nicaragua – Asofenix, Nica Solar, and Ecami – and had good, substantial discussions with them about how best to promote the solar business there. We were especially interested to learn that Ecami, Nicaragua’s oldest solar installer, has won the contract funded by the World Bank to collaborate with the Ministry of Energy and Mines and the private grid utility owner Unión Fenosa on the development of specifications for widespread grid intertie arrangements for free-standing solar and wind power installations. Assuming cooperation on Unión Fenosa’s part – not a given, unfortunately, because this Spanish corporation has stiffed the Nicaraguan people and their government since it took over the grid four or five years ago – this development bodes well for the popularization of solar energy in Nicaragua. It couldn’t come at a better time, as everyone, there even more than here, is struggling with the effects of ever-higher fuel prices.
Joseph and I are very happy to have had this opportunity to learn more about the activities of Green Empowerment and its network’s activities in Nicaragua, and to collaborate in expanding them. We look forward to continuing the work, and thank Gordy Molitor in particular, and the whole Green Empowerment community, for their support of our own energizing efforts.
– Philip Beard, 17 June 2008