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Archive for March, 2010

‘Meet a Green Empowerment Volunteer’ is a new installment on the Green Empowerment blog that highlights past and current Green Empowerment volunteers. Green Empowerment is very lucky to have various committed volunteers and this blog segment will allow the Green Empowerment community to get to know these fantastic individuals.

The smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest intention.  – Oscar Wilde

Dave Lindoo is the first volunteer to be featured.  Well done Dave and best of wishes on your journey to Peru!

Dave Lindoo

Hi, I am Dave Lindoo and I have chosen to volunteer six months of my time to travel to Cajamarca, Peru with Green Empowerment and help create, develop, and maintain renewable energy projects starting July of this year. I feel very lucky for having the opportunity to volunteer with Green Empowerment and I look forward to helping people in developing countries create and maintain sustainable projects that improve their lives. Ever since I’ve graduated with my B.S. in Mechanical Engineering Technology I’ve only wanted to put that degree and knowledge towards the renewable energy industry. I believe it is a very promising field and it is our future. I also believe it the best choice for rural areas in developing countries because it is far more economical than extending the grid (which usually isn’t an option anyway) and each project can be specifically catered to the village’s needs.

To learn more about Dave or donate to the project in Cajamarca please visit his blog!

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Sam Shrank is a 3-month MAP Fellow from Stanford University who is now coming to the close of his 3-month extension (since January 2010).  Sam has been serving with Green Empowerment and the Border Green Energy Team in Thailand since September 2009.

Last September I came to work with the Border Green Energy Team (BGET) on a three-month fellowship. BGET does renewable energy installations and trainings in rural areas along the Thailand-Myanmar border, with expertise in solar, micro-hydro, biogas, and other technologies. My role was to help develop a program that BGET could run independent of grant funding. I wasn’t sure it could be done, but I was excited to apply my experience in evaluating business models toward making my own. Now, entering my last month of what turned into a six-month stay, the problems inherent in making rural electrification financially sustainable are even clearer to me, but I am confident that the scheme I have designed will become a successful venture for BGET.

The first question to ask is why we would want to do this in the first place. The advantage for BGET is obvious—we would be more self-sufficient as an organization and have income that isn’t dependent on receiving grants or contracts from other organizations.

There is also research, however, showing that distributed generation projects that include financial contributions from the end users, which is what financial sustainability would require, are more successful. End users treat the equipment with more care and are more invested, pun intended, in the project. Technology dumps, once popular, are now widely acknowledged as less than ideal.

Almost immediately I zeroed in on solar home systems (SHS) as a promising technology for my project. SHS are household-sized solar power systems, in this case providing enough power for a couple lights and one small appliance. I was particularly drawn to SHS, ironically, because almost every rural household already had one. In 2004 The Thai government decided that they wanted to use SHS to bring electrification to every household not connected to the national grid, and so went to great expense to install almost 200,000. In the intervening years, however, the warranties on these systems have expired (and rural households had a very difficult filing claims anyway) and now the vast majority of these SHS are either partially or completely broken. But in almost every case the solar panel, by far the most expensive piece of equipment, is still functioning, a huge wasted asset.

With this major advantage in hand, I began thinking about how a business like this would operate. The most important consideration is the villagers’ ability and willingness to pay for solar power. Even though rural households in the developing world are often willing to spend more on electricity than people realize, their cash flow is very low. Therefore any work BGET does would have to be paid off over time in small installments. I also realized quickly that it would be critical to limit the number of trips BGET staff would need to make to each village. Even restricting the project’s area to the border districts of Tak province (where BGET currently operates) would include some villages an entire day’s drive away considering the quality of many mountain roads and others not even accessible by car.

These two considerations led me to conclude that such a scheme would need to be run using local franchisees who would do as much of the work—customer recruitment, installation and maintenance, and fee collection—as possible. It also meant that BGET could not simply repair the broken components as we originally planned. The components used by the government were old and cheap, and so even if we fixed or replaced, say, the charge controller, the battery would likely fail before long. With our goal being to travel as little as possible, we could not afford to rely on suspect equipment. Therefore the project evolved from repairing the existing systems to installing our own with components we could trust. By similar logic we also decided that we could not use flooded batteries, which require monthly or ideally even weekly maintenance. Instead we will use maintenance-free batteries that will live up to their advertised lifespan without constant attention.

Both of these decisions increase our equipment cost but we believe that they are necessary for our scheme to work. Using more expensive batteries, we believe, even decreases the amount we will need to charge because we will not need to rely on franchisees for as much maintenance work and we will have to replace fewer batteries. Increasing the lifetime of our equipment is particularly important to our bottom line because we will be renting the systems to customers. In other words, the household pays a monthly fee for the energy service we provide, lighting and power for appliances, but never owns the equipment. If a household decides they no longer want the system or stops paying we take the system away and use it in another location. Therefore we bear the entire cost when a component needs to be replaced but we also get to use each component for its entire lifetime, as even a used piece of equipment can be put into an otherwise new system and simply be replaced when it no longer functions. The main advantage of this arrangement is that we believe it will help attract customers. Households will not be tied down to a long-term ‘mortgage’ and also will more easily be able to compare the cost of the SHS to their current energy expenditures.

Because BGET will bear complete responsibility for the systems, I realized that we needed to make sure that the customers could tamper with the equipment. In many of the households I visited that currently have government SHS systems equipment had been moved, wires had been reconfigured, or components tampered with. There is rarely bad intent, but in this situation protecting our assets is important. For this reason BGET has created a design (not that we are anywhere near the first people to have this idea) where all the electrical equipment is kept within a locked container.

Thus we settled on the scheme as it stands now. We will install a SHS consisting of all BGET equipment save the panel and will retain ownership of the equipment, requiring the households to pay only a monthly fee for the energy services the system provides. We will use local franchisees as sales representatives, installers, repairmen, and fee collectors. But there are many aspects of the scheme that are still unsettled and will go a long way towards determining whether it will be successful.

The first major question is what our relationship with the local governments will be. After the government systems were installed the national government gave ownership of the systems over to the sub-district governments (a sub-district might have between 200-1000 households in it) and so we will need to have some sort of arrangement with them to work on these systems at all. We are hoping, however, to get more than just permission to operate from the local governments, because they could provide significant logistical assistance even if they cannot contribute monetarily. With their local ties they could help us find reliable franchisees, who could even be government employees. Their office would be a convenient location for equipment storage, and government officials could be involved in fee collection. We hope we can secure their help not only because will be running a program that will provide a service to their constituents, but also because we can offer to run the program as a partnership.

We also have yet to determine the best relationship we can establish the franchisees. There are two related questions: what the best way is to compensate the franchisees and how much responsibility we can safely give them. To begin with the latter issue, we are expecting our franchisees to handle customer recruitment, installation, and basic maintenance. But it would perhaps be beneficial to have franchisees be in charge of fee collection and more complicated repairs as well. While it would help us logistically, there are possible concerns about how effectively franchisees could be trained and whether we’d be willing to trust them with large sums of money. These concerns could partially be allayed depending on how the franchisees are compensated. It is important to encourage franchisees to recruit and keep as many customers as possible by aligning their incentives with our own. Therefore we will give them a portion of each monthly fee paid by their customers. The question is whether they will also receive an annual salary. A salary could make the job more attractive and perhaps remove temptation to steal money if franchisees are doing fee collection.

In the coming months we will hopefully be operating a pilot project in one sub-district and we will be able to test out different components and franchisee arrangements. We will also start to get a sense of the biggest unknown, how much households are willing to pay for electricity. Until we get a better idea of what fee we might be able to charge, however, all we can do is try to make the cost as low as possible.

Having made a financial spreadsheet that includes all of our costs and revenues over the first ten theoretical years of the project I am able to see clearly, even without exact values for some variables, where our main expenditures are and how changes to our scheme would change costs. Unsurprisingly equipment costs will be an important element throughout the project’s life, as we will need to continually be buying new equipment. By the later years, however, salary costs for our franchisees will likely far surpass equipment as our main expenditure. The conclusion that can be drawn from this is that, if franchisees are going to be paid any kind of annual salary, we will need to make sure that they each still accumulate a large number of customers. In other words we will still need to make sure their incentive to find customers is strong. To compound the incentive of receiving a portion of customer fees we could also offer prizes to top sellers or offer to raise the annual salary of franchisees who reach certain benchmarks.

Other significant costs include needing to buy a truck at the outset of the project and possibly pay back a loan over time if we need to take a loan out at first. We will probably need a loan because we will incur large equipment costs upfront and only recoup those costs in the form of monthly fees years later. Because we are an organization that pursues funding from project to project, it is important for the project not to stray too far into the red at any point, even if it will be profitable in the long run. Therefore it is important for the scheme to install some systems immediately to begin generating revenue but also grow slowly enough that by the time the money from the initial loan has been spent, enough revenue is coming in from existing systems to pay for further work.

So the ultimate question remains of whether, even after we’ve done all we can to make the systems affordable, we will be able to find customers. The prospect is a little bleaker because these households have previously received solar power for free and therefore and may not want to pay now. We are also, with good justification I believe, using higher quality components than we could and scrapping some existing equipment that could at least temporarily be operable. At this point, without receiving any grants or government assistance, my guess is that our product will only be within the reach of the wealthier village households. This obviously doesn’t mean the scheme isn’t worth running, because it still would provide power to those who do not have it currently, and maybe within a few years, as incomes grow, we might find wider interest. It does mean, however, that we will pursue funding options that will allow us to lower our price.

And even if that means that the project cannot be strictly defined as financially sustainable it will still provide many of the advantages we originally sought. The end users will still have a stake in the project’s success, and BGET will have a stable source of revenue. And, of course, households currently relying on candles or battery-powered headlamps would have access to clean, reliable, solar power, which is what we’re here trying to achieve.

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Havurah Shalom recently committed to work with Green Empowerment in El Jocote Nicaragua to bring a new water system to the community. Residents of El Jocote currently uses a hand pump to reach their water source which can be time consuming and difficult.  A solar installation will pump water into a cement tank at a high point in the community from which gravity pulls it to resident’s homes.  In addition to the renewable energy infrastructure, Havurah Shalom also plans on assisting in organizing a health assessment before and after the installation of the system.

To read the full article or learn how to donate to the El Jocote project please click here.

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Weekly Power Up!

  • Sun energy to sugars: humans follow mother nature’s lead and try to discover the secrets of pea power. Solar goes vegetarian
  • Simple solar power kits are now more affordable using micro-inverters (but perhaps still outside of the college student’s budget)
  • India uses coal tax for green
  • Feeling scholary? Read about if there is enough food out there for 9 billion people.

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Promotional Product Solutions, a Wisconsin based company and active member of 1% For the Planet, learned about Green Empowerment’s community power micro-hydro projects in Nicaragua and featured an article about a trip it funded in part for Presidio Graduate School MBA students in its recent issue of the s.w.a.g.(stuff we all get) journal.

Presidio students toured five Nicaraguan communities with recently completed community power micro-hydro systems,  household solar energy system  and a solar powered clean water delivery system.

Students, in partnership with Green Empowerment and AsoFenix, the  Nicaraguan local partner, will propose and evaluate a business plan and a strategic plan involving integrated carbon financing, fruit cooperatives, new market development, improved cook stove and reforestation projects.

Promotional Product Solutions is just one of several thousand contributing member companies of  1% for the Planet. Using 1% of yearly gross profit, companies contribute to the health and sustainability of the planet by supporting non-profits like Green Empowerment who work on clean, renewable energy and environmental sustainability.  The creative use of funds to involve students will have an amazing impact in the future as their work benefits the immediate environmental concerns while giving experience and meaning to those who will be working on our sustainable future. Green Empowerment is pleased to have these  Presidio students back for a second year as part of an ongoing relationship.

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Weekly Power UP!

  • Michael Jackson’s bid for energy: “Building Energey Efficiency Through Innovative Thermodevices” (BEET-IT)
  • Maybe we are finally getting it. The best way to integrate our lives is to mimic the most natural thing of all – nature. Mold-ing a new solution.
  • Save money with glow in the dark toilet paper… It’s a fun idea but seriously misguided. Still, the scope of the human imagination is powerful : ) Plus glow poo!
  • The Greenest Skyscraper in the world, a step towards ZEB (Zero Emissions Buildings), designed by a Chicago firm, is scheduled to be built in China. Green never looked so tall.

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Jason Selwitz has served with Green Empowerment since 2007.  He is the Director of Service Learning/Program Manager and lived in the Philippines as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 1998–2000.  He earned his Master’s in Regenerative Studies from Cal Poly Pomona with focus on the nexus between water and energy issues.  Over the last three years, he has spent much time working with AsoFenix and the communities of the Cerro San Geronimo region of central Nicaragua.  Jason can be reached at: jason@greenempowerment.org

From 2004 through 2009, the Phoenix Association (AsoFenix) and Green Empowerment teamed with four rural farming communities in the municipality of Teustepe in the Department of Boaco, Nicaragua to install solar powered community clean water drinking systems in each village.  The villages of Candelaria (completed in 2004 for 240 people), Potreritos (completed in 2006 for 500 people), Bramadero (completed in 2007 for 240 people), and Sonzapote (completed in 2009 for 480 people) now have water from each system’s main tank fed via gravity directly to each household.  Each household had to construct a latrine to be allowed to receive water plumbed to their home.  All four communities formed their own water committee to manage the operations and monthly maintenance tariff that they alone (not AsoFenix) collected from each household.

Cerro San Geronimo

Since late 2008, AsoFenix and Green Empowerment have begun to work with a fifth nearby village, El Jocote, on organizing and preparing the community to operate and maintain a community water delivery system — slated for installation by late 2010/early 2011 through the generous support of one of Portland’s Jewish congregations, Havurah Shalom.  It is important to realize that the five villages (including El Jocote) encircle a prominent hill named Cerro San Geronimo, and “as the crow flies,” the villages are all within one to three miles distance of one another.  The Cerro San Geronimo region exists within a dry tropical forest zone where rains usually fall between May and the end of November of each year.  During these months, many of the households collect rainwater off their roof to augment needs and reduce stress on the community water system.

El Jocote

Since the end of the 2008 rainy season, whether due to an El Niño/La Niña cycle or the progression of climate change, there have been no significant, sustained rains in the Cerro San Geronimo region.  As a result of the lack of the rain to recharge groundwater supplies, the water level in Bramadero has dropped about 10m.  In the past, during the height of the rainy season, the 40m well in Bramadero was often flush with ground level.  However, at present, families in Bramadero must ration water from the well, rely on smaller hand dug family wells, and in addition, are resorting back to hiking the two-mile distance (one-way) to El Jocote to fetch water, sometimes more than once per day.  The extended drought has alerted the local people, AsoFenix, and Green Empowerment to the immediate and emerging necessity to manage the micro-watersheds of Cerro San Geronimo differently.  The people of Candelaria, Potreritos, and Sonzapote know all too well from the recent past what it is like to subsist on distant, non-potable and/or limited water supplies and do not want to see the levels of water in their wells drop as the well water in Bramadero has.

Rock Wall

Deforestation and soil compaction are environmental issues in the region due to demand for firewood and unsustainable pasturing/agricultural practices.  In the Cerro San Geronimo region, large landowners lease forested land to tenant farmers so they can grow their beans, corn, and millet.  As the tenant farmers clear the land for firewood and to grow their crops for a couple of seasons, the large landowners eventually have a piece of land that they have cleared for free to run their cattle.  When the cattle move in, the tenant farmers are moved and are forced to seek out other lands to lease and clear to grow their crops.  As this cycle continues, so does deforestation and erosion, and correspondingly the ability of water to infiltrate and be captured in the soil is thereby greatly reduced.  At the same time, dehydration, water-borne illness, lack of sanitation/hygiene, and poor nutrition (from a lack of fruits and vegetables) are all prevalent realities.  In order to alleviate these human issues and provide for improved means of water security through rainwater capture when it does rain, more community consultations and work sessions, land use surveys and watershed assessments, hydro-geological studies, training workshops, erosion control practices, firewood reduction initiatives, land use changes, reforestation campaigns, weather monitoring, and economic incentives need to be adopted.  This entire cycle of projects, from community involvement through reforestation efforts, could establish a model for replication in dry tropical forest communities with similar issues.

To begin the process of regeneration, in January 2009, a team of Portland residents and students from Portland State University’s Environmental and Business programs traveled to the Cerro San Geronimo region with AsoFenix and Green Empowerment.  While there, the Portland team installed one solar powered drip irrigation system to water tomatoes, watermelon, and squash; installed one prototype wind turbine; studied micro-hydro and solar water pumping systems; helped install two household solar systems; planted fruit and forest tree species; and learned about shade grown coffee and farmer cooperatives.

In 2010, a second team of Portland residents and students from Portland State University’s Environmental and Business programs focused their efforts in the villages of Bramadero and El Jocote to conduct a land use survey and watershed assessment of the two neighboring communities/micro-watersheds, as well as, install a weather station in each community.  Through the process, the Portland team tried to answer the question of why El Jocote, a community within only two miles of Bramadero, appears to have more abundant surface and groundwater resources than Bramadero.  The answer may lie in part to: 1) the placement of the wells in relation to the local hydro-geology; 2) El Jocote residents’ philosophy of “water is life and trees help capture and store water”; and/or 3) their related practice of leaving more forest cover in the riparian zones of drainages that have naturally occurring springs, hand dug wells, and retention dams/infiltration basins called “pilas.”  The differences between Bramadero and El Jocote’s “water security” practices were stark, yet El Jocote’s still has room for improvement.

Hand Dug Well

Through the help of students and supporters in Portland, we are beginning to understand the complex relationships between human activity, culture, hydro-geology, land use, forest cover, soil quality, water practices and demand, and rainfall.  We realize the health of the Cerro San Geronimo watersheds, the people of the region, and the climate are interdependent and we see an opportunity to develop and implement a model for water security and an improved standard of living.  This model will integrate environmental monitoring, rainwater harvesting training workshops, interviews regarding traditional ecological knowledge, compiling rainwater harvesting research from around the world, further hydro-geological study, reforestation activities, and action.  Through this comprehensive approach, the Cerro San Geronimo region, and other dry forested regions in the world, can adopt and replicate sustainable practices to secure needed water resources.

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