Archive for March, 2009

Green Empowerment has been selected as one of three finalists for the international Energy Globe Award in the “Water” category, for a series of solar water pumping projects in Nicaragua with partner AsoFenix.  To say we’re excited would be a vast understatement!

Nominations were chosen from a pool of 800 projects in 110 countries. A winner in each category will be selected at the Energy Globe Awards ceremony preceding the informal meeting of European Environment ministers in Prague on April 14th. The winner will receive 10,000 euros.

Our own Michel Maupoux will represent Green Empowerment at the formal Energy Globe Awards in Prague. Invitees to the meeting also include Carol Browner, climate advisor of US President Barack Obama, And our Thai partner, Border Green Energy Team. The event will be a televised gala that is viewed worldwide.

Green Empowerment was singled out as one of the top three organizations in the world for its “Solar Water Pumping and Community Empowerment” projects in Nicaragua. Green Empowerment worked with Nicaraguan partner Asofenix to construct three solar water pumps in rural Nicaragua between 2004 and 2007, bringing water to the homes of 960 people who previously had to haul buckets long distances. These projects dramatically improve health and well being with environmentally sound alternative energy.

“Many of the challenges facing rural communities in developing countries can now be addressed by the use of simple, cost-effective sustainable systems like the solar water pump,” said Gordy Molitor, Executive Director, Green Empowerment. “However, moving forward, one of our goals is to assist with extended deployment of these systems by local organizations on a more regional level. The recognition by the Energy Globe Awards jury is a welcome validation of this work.”

Solar water pumping catalyzed community efforts to construct latrines, home gardens, build biogas digesters, showers and hand-washing stations. Each village organized to self-manage the systems, collects a tariff to maintain them, and elects a technician to operate the systems. Green Empowerment helped install a fourth solar pump in 2008 and has further plans for 2009 and beyond for more regional projects throughout rural Nicaragua.

The Energy Globe Award distinguishes projects that sustainably use our resources such as water, earth, energy and air or use renewable energy forms. Awards are given nationally and internationally in the categories Earth, Fire, Water, Air and Youth. The Awards were established in 1999.

In addition to acknowledgment of Green Empowerment’s work, the Energy Globe has also recognized two of its partners. Thai partner Border Green Energy Team is the national winner for Burma and a finalist in the Fire category for the “Burma Solar Clinic and Hospital Project”, and Peruvian partner Practical Action has won the national Award for Peru for “Renewable Energy for Community Empowerment in Peru”.  Last year’s top nominees included SIBAT for “Fire” and AIDFI for “Water”.

We are deeply grateful to our partners and to our donors for bringing this distinction to our shared work.


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When the trenches were half dug, sides were taken. The water lines were ready be laid when the old woman who owns the land with the water spring said that she didn’t want to give one drop of water to the school or the 12 other households who were supposed to drink from that source. Why the change of heart? It turns out that someone had produced an old document signed in the community that stated that they bought the spring for 3000soles (about $1000) over 10 years ago to be used for communal drinking water. There are hand-written receipts for that amount, but her son only remembers seeing 500soles pass hands to his father. The problem is that the father has since passed away and there were no other witnesses. Now, the woman feels that her family had been tricked and she wants no part of a new water deal.

After much negotiation, she finally said that she would allow water to go to just the school. But then her other sons who now live in coastal cities came back to this small community in the mountains, Suro Antivo. When one son agreed that the water should go to the school, his brothers jumped on him. They felt that the respect of the family was being challenged. At this point, it seemed best to seek another solution…

The ITDG sociologist, the community leader (Teniente Gobernador), Homero, and I went to talk to the owner of the other spring in the village, where the new water system is being built. First, we thanked Emilda for her honorable gift to the community…and asked if more water could be drawn from the spring to supply the school…and maybe a few more neighbors. Homero is a skilled diplomat and handled the conversation with great care. After some discussion, and a mention that her generosity would be “recognized” by the community, she agreed.

The water meetingThe next morning, about 40 people gathered together in front of the school, including the district mayor, the school teacher (who wrote up notes in the formal Act book), the municipal registrars, and Emilda in her big straw hat. The meeting started about an hour late, but I think the informal milling around is where the real communication took place. At last, the Teniente convened the meeting and explained the situation of how they reached the deadend with the other spring. The community leaders asked the mayor that the budget stay in the community. The mayor agreed, and said that the materials could be used to extend Emilda’s water source to the school and where the system didn’t reach, families could build individual spring boxes and pipes to their homes, under direction of the municipal engineer. Everyone applauded. We shared strawberry soda and moonshine. Soon we’ll be sharing water.

Meanwhile, we had arranged for the top water specialist in Cajamarca to come to Suro Antivo and evaluate the water site near the cemetery. He works for the department of Environmental Health and has a laboratory in the regional hospital. He reviewed the topography and geology of the site and said with confidence that the surface water from the cemetery flows away from the spring used for drinking water. The spring emerges from several hundred meters deep. He gave some recommendations, such as digging a drainage gully to divert any overflow water, and lining the new graves with lime. (He also said the human body is 60% water and the rest of us decomposes completely in 2 years, so old bones are no threat…who knew?) He tested for pH, which is in the normal range, and for Nitrates in the hospital lab. The text confirms that there is zero contamination from the cemetery. Whew.

Kids in Suro AntivoAll things seem simpler at a distance. It sounds simple enough: bring spring water to homes. But in reality, the complexity of community dynamics cannot be underestimated and spring water can be contaminated by “holy water”. Now that there is an alternative water spring and we know that the water sources are pure, we’re ready to start building…again.

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If we had a nickel for every technical question Green Empowerment was asked via blog, website, email and phone related to renewable energy and sustainable water systems for the developing world, boy, we’d have a lot of nickels.  Whenever possible, Michel Maupoux and the rest of our team have answered as quickly and completely as possible.  After all, with 1.6 billion of the world’s people living without access to energy and 2.6 billion without adequate access to clean water, there are more than enough problems waiting for solutions, and Green Empowerment works diligently to provide those solutions.

Now, thanks to our Peruvian partner, Practical Action, a special service called Practical Answers awaits your questions with eager anticipation and answers at the ready.

“I’m a shop-owner in Sudan and want to put solar power on my shop–how can I figure out how many solar panels I need?” Or, “I’m a farmer in Bolivia and want to build a biogas digester. Do you have designs?”  Need a little help designing a hydraulic ram pump system in Afghanistan?  Allow me to invite you to begin your fact-finding journey here:

Practical Answers Enquiry

Thanks again to our partner, Practical Action, and to DFID for making this possible.

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Calvin Helfenstine, a recent graduate from the University of Michigan in Mechanical Engineering, was an Intern with AsoFenix in Nicaragua in 2008 through the Engineers for a Sustainable World’s Summer Engineering Experience in Development (SEED) program. Calvin built on the work of SEED Intern, Samuel Schlesinger, who contributed an earlier blog posting.

Calvin Helfenstine

Calvin Helfenstine


Surveying for Solar Water Pumping Station

Surveying for Solar Water Pumping Station

The solar water pumping station in Sonzapote was the most important and largest budgeted project from the position of Asofenix. Initially, a topographical study was performed to determine the elevation of various elements of the community. Working with Nicaraguan surveyors, we spent a day in the village collecting data. Upon review of the topographic study, we were able to accurately size the pump and solar panel system for the community’s needs. A community census and survey was also conducted to accurately determine the water usage needs of the village throughout the year, and attempt to document the state of the village to determine what changes occur with this project. While administering this survey, we explained the necessity of having a latrine before receiving water to the house. In addition we documented the level of education of each community member. The results showed that less than half of the community was able to read.  With the winter harvest underway, we were unable to begin installation of the system before the end of our program. The equipment was ordered and the project is scheduled to be completed by the end of November of this year. [*ed note – the community water delivery system was installed in December 2008 and the distribution network was completed by the community and AsoFenix in Feb. 2009.]

Examining Data for Solar Water Pumping Station

Examining Data for Solar Water Pumping Station

Collaborating with students from the Universidad Nacional de Ingenieria (UNI), we worked on a project to construct a wind generator made of recycled materials to be used for charging batteries in the village of Bromadero. Based on a variety of existing generator designs found via the internet and a site visit to an existing wind turbine in Matagalpa, an overall design was developed.

One week was spent with the students at the UNI workshop to fabricate the design. Although well equipped for working with metal, there were insufficient resources to fabricate the wooden blades. Having trouble locating the necessary materials, we were only able to fabricate a tail and make preliminary cuts for the blades. The project was put on hold until we could locate a new location with proper machines for woodworking.

Calvin Holds Up the Wind Generator

Calvin Holds Up the Wind Generator

When we convened on the project, we again encountered more problems. Without prior notice, the school had closed for a week and all the previous supplies were locked in the workshop. With limited time to complete the project, we decided to take on a new design using blades made of PVC tubing. The design would allow us to complete most of the work in the office of Asofenix with minimal equipment required.

The blade design was modified from existing designs on the internet using 6 inch diameter tubing with a blade length of three feet. The tubing was cut to length and quartered lengthwise. A small taper was cut into the blade to serve as the leading edge. Once cut, the blades were sanded to form rounded corners and leading and trailing edges.  The components of the design were made of recycled and cheap materials. A used saw blade was purchased to serve as the central hub to mount the blades to the generator. The tail was fabricated from sheet metal and scrap tubing purchased from a junkyard. The wood for the main body was donated from a local construction site. A motor was purchased from the Mercado Oriental, Central America’s largest market, with the help of “runners” and a fellow Nicaraguan Asofenix worker. We were unable to successfully describe the type of motor needed and the motor purchased was unsuitable for use as a generator.

Further research showed that the types of motors best suited for wind generators (permanent magnet DC motors) could be easily found used in the U.S. from items such as old tape drives, treadmills, or washing machines. None of these items, however, are prevalent in Nicaragua. In addition, due to the culture of re-use until broken, it is difficult to locate a used motor for sale that is still serviceable.

We met with a professor of wind energy at another UNI campus who had tried to make wind generators for years without success. Many student-made models were scattered around his trailer-based office but the only wind generator in service was a purchased unit from the U.S., which was spinning above his office. Reassured that it was indeed difficult to produce such wind generators in a country with the necessary resources, we decided to find a suitable motor to serve as a proof-of-concept. A 12-volt fan from a bus was located and used for preliminary testing.

Testing the Wind Generator

Testing the Wind Generator

The “testing” involved holding the assembled unit above our heads in the back of a pickup truck while driving down the road. The voltage was read with a multimeter while driving at speeds up to 25 miles per hour. With the small motor we were only able to achieve just over one volt but the blades did prove to spin rapidly and serve well. When a proper motor can be located (it will possibly be imported with a future volunteer) the design can be implemented to serve to charge batteries as desired.


We also installed a biodigestor in Candelaria to provide biogas for cooking for one household. The current cooking practices involve carrying large limbs miles to the home and cutting them into smaller pieces to be used as firewood. This system results in additional physical labor, deforestation, and indoor air pollution.

With a biogas digester, animal manure is processed through anaerobic digestion by bacteria into biogas composed of 70% methane. This gas is then piped into the home for use with a gas stove. The waste matter from the system is a sterile liquid, which can be used as an organic fertilizer.  The particular design we used is called the “salchicha,” or sausage, in Central America as it involves a large sausage-like plastic bag open on both ends.

Working with the family, we first laid out the footprint for the biodigester basin. We then excavated the hole and shaped the walls as desired. A reservoir was created to serve as the entrance for the slurry as well as an exit reservoir to contain the fertilizer. The walls were then lined with rocks and cement to form a barrier with the soil.

The plastic bag measured 4 meters long with a width of 2.5 meters (doubled over). A small hole was cut in the top of the bag to serve as the outlet for the biogas. A hollow plastic male fitting on the outside of the bag was screwed into a female connection on the inside with a set of washers and rubber squares between to serve as a sandwich connection to the bag. The bag was connected to the inlet and outlet tubes, which were four inch diameter PVC tubing. Semi-truck inner tubes were cut into strips and wrapped around the bag, which was pleated to fit snugly around the tubing. The completed setup was placed in the hole and outlet tube covered with dirt.

Building the Biodigestor

Building the Biodigestor

Before leaving the village upon completion, instructions were given to fill the bag with manure and water with a ratio of two to one. Approximately two cubic meters of slurry were needed to fill the bag. Upon returning to the village we discovered that one of the valves had been left open and all gas that had been produced had escaped the chamber leaving a deflated bag. Upon reassuring the villagers that the design did work, they continued to fill the bag daily. Although we did see much activity such as bubbles seeping through the mixture, the bag did not fill in my two days that I had left in the village. The design takes approximately one week to produce enough gas to fill the bag but provides enough gas to cook daily once it is operating.


My experience was some of the most interesting and personally gratifying time I have ever spent. During my eleven weeks in Nicaragua, I got a glimpse of what it is like to live in a third-world country, a life that closely resembles most of the world. Although the lives of the people of Nicaragua may not be glamorous by U.S. standards, I believe they live a satisfying life on a personal level. The pace of life is less stressful, family ties are stronger, and the people are generally grateful for what they do have.

During my first three or so visits to the village I did experience a bit of culture shock. Each time I went back to the village, I would be more used to the lifestyle but new things would keep coming up that were extremely different than the life we are used to. With time however, bucket showers, latrines, animals in the house, wood-fire kitchens, and beds made of plastic fabric seemed normal and somewhat comforting with each visit.

My Spanish skills were poor at best when I arrived in Nicaragua. Over my time in the country I was forced to improve my skills just to communicate with my host family. Although somewhat frustrating at times, like a game of charades, my Spanish skills developed extremely. Although not always perfect, I was able to successfully participate in meetings, conduct surveys, and work alongside native Nicaraguans with little or no problems communicating whatever desired. As these skills developed, I was also able to form a relationship with my host-family and fellow workers.

I developed a strong understanding of the Nicaraguan way of life, values, and culture. I became deeply immersed in their lifestyle, sometimes shedding my American idea of things. At one point, a fellow volunteer and I refused to rent bicycles for U.S. $2.50 because they were charging us too much. In hindsight, $2.50 is nothing with U.S. spending habits, but for the lifestyle we were used to it seemed ridiculous. When we did happen to see tourists from other parts of the world, they seemed to stick out much more than us.

Seeing the excitement of the villagers with our projects was very encouraging and rewarding. During our survey of Sunzapote we discovered that only women and girls carried the water to the homes by buckets weighing forty pounds. When asked why they wanted this project in their village, we got a variety of responses but nearly all were with a smile. Women were excited to be able to spend more time with the children, taking care of the house, or taking a minute to relax from their hard-working days. I am positive that this project will improve the lives of everyone in the village and is one large step towards improving their living conditions.

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