Archive for the ‘solar energy’ Category

 Our next 2 day training on “Renewable Energy in the Developing World” — solar photovoltaics and solar powered water pumping — will be held with Portland State University, all day Saturday and Sunday on November 20 & 21, 2010.  For more information, please contact: jason@greenempowerment.org. To register, please contact Sherri at Green Empowerment, (503) 284-5774.

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Ethan McCoy, an OIT renewable energy engineering student and current AsoFenix intern, chronicles a trip to the community of Cuajinicuil Nicaragua.

July 13th 2010

Out in community sunlight dictates life, much like I experienced last summer in the waters of SE Alaska. The group of engineers for this outing to Cuajinicuil from AsoFenix includes employees Gustavo and Edwin (Nicaraguans) and two interns Emilee (French) and myself (American). The purpose of the trip is tri-fold; the first of which is to collect information from households about their demographics, work and general economic background to gain a better
picture of who exactly AsoFenix is serving, the second is to gather site data for a solar water pump system that will provide water to most of the houses within the community of Cuajinicuil and the third leg is to provide a training session for community technicians in solar installation and give supervised, hands-on experience for them via household installations.

(L-R) Emilee, Gustavo and Edwin use GPS to plot data

With the help of community members we have all our gear needed to complete the training and solar installs portaged up to the ridgeline community of Cuajinicuil: Gustavo will prove to be the point man during the two day affair. We arrive in community to have the clouds open up and for the better part of an hour, are held captive in a local’s home following a completed a survey, waiting for the rain to dissipate. After entertaining the few curious children who had followed us from house to house, as Spanish being the base language for the AsoFenix crew and with boredom waiting in the wings, we three non-native French speakers begin to discover the world around us in French. Finished with the domestic inquiries, we spend the next hour or so traversing bean fields and forested areas in light rain, surveying the nearly completed well and potential sites for the tank component of the solar water system. Past sunset and into the evening, Gustavo holds the solar technical training session, attended by at least a dozen curious community members as well as the three technicians.

July 14th

Up just after sunrise by a rooster, the second and only full day in Cuajinicuil is to be dedicated to household solar installations. After completing the first of four homes, we split into two groups; Edwin and myself with two technicians and Gustavo and Emilee with the third technician. The idea is to have the technicians complete the second and third homes with our supervision and then complete the fourth on their own. The rest of Cuajinicuil is supplied with electricity by a single wind turbine, (a joint project of AsoFenix and another NGO) but four homes are too isolated from the main cluster of homes to be serviced by the turbine and thus are being outfitted with solar systems.

Gustavo guides technicians through the installation of a solar panel

Our home is up some rugged terrain on a false summit of the eastside of a hill, dropping away with an amazing view to the east, the hill continuing up to the west. The installation goes well considering it being the second time for the technicians, some adjustments made from the memory of the first installation and new lessons are learned. At
the finish, the technicians traverse down the rocky topography to return with Gustavo to prepare the final paperwork and instructions: Edwin and I are left near dusk to soak in the view and chat with the family. We end up leaving with a bag of shucked corn, offered in gratitude by the family for an afternoon of work and the installation of technology that will undoubtedly help to soften the rigors of daily life.

The evening concludes with a hike at dusk, back to the centrally located house we had been using as a base and I regret not having brought my headlamp: I did not figure the day would go this long. Over a meal prepared from the kitchen of one of the more lively women of Cuajinicuil, a meeting time is set for the following morning that will precede the roosters in order to complete the hour long decent to catch the bus that will take us to our next project of micro-hydroelectric data collection.

Surrounded by curious locals, Gustavo finishes up the solar installation as technicians look on

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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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The entry below was written by Philip Beard who traveled to Nicaragua in March 2009 with his good friend Joseph Marino to complete their second major photovoltaic installation there.  The grateful recipient was a wonderful home for abused kids called “Hogar amiguitos” in the central-northern town of Jinotega. The work was kindly facilitated with funding from Green Empowerment.  This is the story of that project.

First some background.  Joseph’s the founder and till recently the CEO of DC Power Systems in Healdsburg, California, a major distributor of renewable energy equipment and know-how.  I’m a retired German professor with a two-decade history of collaboration with progressive projects in Nicaragua.  Joseph and I have been friends since the 1970’s.  In 2006 we completed the first of our joint projects in Nicaragua, where he’d asked me for guidance in identifying worthy recipients of donated photovoltaic systems.  That first one was for a women’s clinic in Mulukukú, where it still reigns as the largest single photovoltaic system operating in Nicaragua.

Shortly after completing the Mulukukú installation,  Joseph learned of another worthy candidate: Hogar amiguitos, a home for abused children in Jinotega.  On our next trip (May-June 2008) we visited the site and got to know Joy Pulsifer, the 32-year-old Mississippian who runs the center.  She has no salary, but says she’d rather be nowhere else in the world, doing no other work.  Her relationship with her young charges (about 20 boys and girls aged 6 through 18) is warm, firm, loving.  She and her staff (including volunteers and interns from the US and Germany) are doing very important work, and deserve all the help they can get from sympathetic onlookers like us.

So we spent a couple of days in June ’08 consulting with Joy about electrical needs, measuring potential panel installation sites, taking copious pictures – doing the groundwork for an eventual installation.  Then before coming back home, we met with Green Empowerment’s Gordy Molitor, Suni Solar’s Douglas Gonzales, and some engineers at the Asofenix office in Managua, where a plan was hatched for a thorough on-site inspection which would determine whether the existing roof at Hogar amiguitos was sound enough to support a panel array of the size we were contemplating, or what reinforcing modifications would be necessary to keep the whole thing from falling down or blowing away in a big storm.

Fast forward to the more recent past.  By March of ’09 Joseph had received the structural information needed to determine where the array should be placed and what roof reinforcement would be in order.  He had ordered and shipped all the panels, control devices, racks, wiring, etc. from DC Power to Suni Solar, our primary installation collaborators in Managua.  And had enlisted the support of Paco Jordan, a Mendocino County (California) builder who’d done beaucoup solar installations and as a bonus, spoke good Spanish.  We planned to meet up at the airport in Managua on March 22 (I would have been down there for five days already, visiting friends in other parts of the country), then drive to Jinotega, stopping first in Mulukukú to fine-tune the installation there, and in Matagalpa for a brief visit with good friends.

All would have been groovy except for a couple of unforeseeable factors.

First, the equipment container was held up for impenetrable bureaucratic reasons at the port in Corinto.  The stuff that was supposed to greet us upon our arrival in Jinotega on Mar. 26 didn’t finally arrive until Friday of the next week, Apr. 3 – meaning that the team would have a little over two days to put all the pieces in place before Joseph and Paco had to fly back to California!

And second, a truly bizarre circumstance, whose details would require a whole other essay.   The short version: In Mulukukú I subjected myself to a so-called “acupunture” treatment for my arthritic hips by a Cuban orthopedist on a two-year assignment to the women’s clinic.  It was nothing like what we normally think of as acupuncture – little needles placed at meridian points to stimulate “chi” flow, etc.  Rather, Dr. Mesa injected eight bits of catgut surgical thread around each of my hip joints.  (I wasn’t looking, so only learned when he’d finished what he’d actually done.) The theory of this so-called “semilla de catgut” method is that the body will act to reject this invader by sending huge quantities of blood coursing to the affected area.  The blood-flow then over time allegedly dissolves the calcium buildup of the arthritic joint, leaving it relatively smooth.

What Dr. Mesa didn’t tell me was that my hips, groin, and lower back would respond to this invasion in a different way.  They basically locked up, all the muscles going into spasm.  The next day I could hardly walk, and though he assured me that all would be well in a couple of days, in fact it was more like two months before I got my full pre-catgut range of movement back.

The upshot for our solar installation project was that I was now pretty useless except for shopping forays and other errands where Joseph needed my Spanish.  Meanwhile, Paco was hard at work building walls and doors to house the inverter, batteries, and charge controllers.  I’d hoped to lend him a hand, but my hips now had other ideas, and so I was relegated to translating services for the duration.

I had to return to California already on March 31, and the shipment was still languishing in the customs port of Corinto at that point, so the rest of my report is based on Joseph’s stories and photos after he got back.

Basically the story is that with Paco’s fine preparatory work, and he, Joseph, and the Suni Solar team, plus a couple of guys from a competing installation firm (Tecnosol) whom Joseph had invited along for the ride – got the sucker up and running in an incredible two days!  I was very sorry not to be able to witness their anthill of activity, but Joseph’s photos gave me, and will give readers, a good taste of what those hectic two days must have been like.  Here are a few.

So there we have it.  Joseph joins me in thanking Green Empowerment immensely for their generous assistance in planning and funding this fine project.  And we both look forward avidly to the next one.

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Sam Shrank is a 3-month MAP Fellow from Stanford University who has been serving with Green Empowerment and the Border Green Energy Team in Thailand since September 2009.


Monday was a day of driving. We drove from Mae Sot to the last village accessible by car on the way to our final destination, Lay Tong Ku. We were headed there, the three technicians, another volunteer, and myself, to install a solar system in a medical clinic that services both the village of 1,200 and many people who come from Burma specifically to avail themselves of the clinic’s services. The system will power seven lights and a vaccine refrigerator. The refrigerator especially will allow the clinic to expand its services, as it currently has no way to keep vaccines or medications cold.

The drive took about six hours, including a long lunch break at a roadside restaurant near Umpiam refugee camp. I spent the drive dozing, trying to stop my seat cushion from sliding off the seat every time we went down a hill, and reading Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries. I liked the book mostly as a travel story, though it was interesting to see the beginnings of his ideology forming (at exactly my age) and learn more about his life from the introduction.

Playing Caneball

We stayed at the (very nice) house of our ‘guide’. I watched the technicians play caneball—think volleyball with no hands, except the people here are still able to spike! They wanted me to play but it would have just been embarrassing. I spent the evening playing the Thai version of gin rummy with two of the technicians. Once we cleared up some rules misunderstandings we had a good time. Going on these trips is when I interact with the technicians the most, and that is definitely a highlight. They are—and this is characteristic really of most people in Mae Sot and elsewhere here—very happy and friendly. Even listening to their conversation without understanding anything you notice how much they laugh and how animated they are. And even with their broken English they are always joking around with me about anything and everything.


Hiking to Lay Tong Ku

Hiking to Lay Tong Ku

Tuesday was a day of walking. It took probably 4 hours to get to LTK from the end of the auto road. We went up and down two mountains, but it was the heat that really made the hike hard. There were nice views at times, but most of the time our view was obstructed even at the top of the mountain by the dense vegetation. When there were gaps, though I could see forested mountains in what must have been Burma, and occasionally the outlines of villages. We met a group of maybe 30 Karen men going in the opposite direction. They stopped to talk with us, and I repeatedly heard them say one of the two only Karen words I know: “Tahb-luh” or “thank you.” It turns out they were our porters, men from LTK who were carrying our equipment, especially the behemoth vaccine refrigerator. Though, as we soon found out, they decided the refrigerator was such a behemoth that they could not carry it on the trail, so it would have to be brought to LTK by tractor over a much longer route.

Meeting the Karen Porters

Anyway, the particularly interesting thing about these Karen is that they are not Christian or Buddhist as most are, but have a belief system that is some combination of spiritualism and animism. This leads to many differences. They do not drink alcohol, or eat domesticated animals. Second, the men mostly have very long hair that they tie in a bun at the front of their head similar to a samurai’s topknot. In most ways they are like all other Karen though—incredibly friendly, agile and fearless when it comes to manual labor, fanatical about spicy food and betel nut, and generous with their food and time.


Wednesday was a day of work. The refrigerator still had not arrived but we installed the rest of the system so that if the refrigerator arrives tomorrow we will still be on track to leave Friday first thing in the morning. The five 130W solar panels are also powering six fluorescent lights and one LED light for the clinic, kitchen, outhouse, and doctor’s house. Except for a short time carrying wood in the morning, I spent the first part of my workday helping assemble wire ties (very unskilled labor) and following M  (the third technician) around passing him tools as he climbed up to the rafters to hang lights.

Nailing in the Wire Ties

Soon though I was doing my own tasks. When you think of installing solar-powered lighting you probably think of setting up the panels, or maybe hanging up lights. But actually the vast majority of the work required is laying and connecting wires and setting up switches. Wire ties have to be nailed into the wooden columns and rafters every three inches or so, differing in size depending on how many wires need to be held in place. There are wires that go from each switch to each light, but also a main line that comes from the batteries/panels, and in some locations that main line must be ties in to lines going to the outer buildings (nurse’s house, outhouse, kitchen). Therefore in some places four wires needed to be run in parallel and tied down. The particularly tedious work is nailing in the ties. I spent most of the time nailing in the 1-wire ties, which have a nail the size of the top of a grain of rice and themselves are less than half the length of my pinky finger. To nail them in you fold them over the nail to hold the nail in place until it is firmly in the wood, but still holding the tie in place with my fat fingers means that there is almost no room for error in where I hit the nail. And because the nails are so small even one hit in the wrong direction will bend the nail severely.

Now I believe I possess many talents but fine motor skills are not chief among them. This task would have been hard enough for me had I been doing it standing on the ground. But most of the time I was in the rafters, sitting either on a wooden crossbeam an inch thick or on the bamboo doorframe (a little thicker but much creakier) of the nurse’s bedroom. Though it was fun to climb all over the buildings and I never felt like I was putting myself in danger, it meant that I could never give my complete focus to my hammering, and increased my mistakes. I later had to climb back up to tie the ties around the wires, which often meant I had to stand precariously on a thin piece of wood without touching the wire so that I could pull it taut.

The other main job I had was making switches, which again is more complicated than it sounds. In the simplest switch, the wire to the load (lamp) is connected to the main line from the power source. The wires must first be stripped to expose the positive and negative wires, which in turn must again be stripped at their ends to reveal the copper that actually conducts the electricity. The negative wires are then twisted together to allow current to flow freely, while the positive ends are screwed into the switch. In this way, when the switch is closed (in other words, the light is turned on) a complete circuit exists, and the light will receive power while when the switch is open there is no circuit.

After we finished work for the day we took a trip to the local waterfall, which must have been 75 feet high or so, full of deep pools, almost vertical drops over craggy rock, and funnels with violently rushing water. I was just looking forward to swimming in the pool at the bottom and taking some pictures until the technicians started literally running up the falls. They ran up the steep parts, climbed up the vertical stretches, and waded through the fastest flows. They could even run and jump down the falls without a second thought. I was persuaded to try to climb the falls myself and so began my very slow ascent. I never felt at all out of control, but that is only because I tested every foothold and handhold obsessively. It was a pretty big thrill when I got to the top, and we all spent maybe 30 minutes fooling around in the water and relaxing. After all, we had definitely earned it.

At the Local Waterfall

Dinner was ready soon after we got back from the waterfall and finished showering. I think now is a good time to describe what it is like to eat a Karen meal. Each person is served a plate of rice and each dish is placed in the center and eaten family style. Before eating you use your spoon (or hands when especially traditional or hungry) to break up your rice, which is often clumpy or stuck together. You then eat a bite of plain rice before you combine with anything else, I assume as a check on the rice’s quality. Then you are free to eat from the shared bowls. It is customary to take only a small amount at once, enough for maybe two or three bites. Fish dishes are very common, as are chicken and pork (except in this village). They do have decent selection of green vegetables that they eat, mostly leafy greens that are put in soups. If there is a dish that looks like it might be spicy is almost definitely is—of the 3 or 4 dishes served at a meal there are never more than 2 I can handle and 1 often is only vegetables. I have acquired a taste for many new vegetables in Thailand, including cucumbers, kale, and many leafy greens that many not even have English names. Because all of the meat here is heavy on bone and gristle it is acceptable to pick up the pieces, which are always small, with your hands, or to put them in your mouth and play with it to remove the meat. The bones and waste are put in a pile next to your bowl to be cleared at the end of the meal. I am always completely full after a meal, even if with mostly rice on occasion.

Enjoying a Karen Dinner



Refrigerator Installation

Thursday was a day of training. For most of the day that meant that I sat and watched as the technicians trained the nurses and villagers in Karen, following along by the diagrams drawn on the blackboard. I had been informed a couple days ago that I would be doing the refrigerator training and Thursday evening the time finally came. The refrigerator arrived at dusk by way of some long tractor journey in Burma, and we quickly installed it, though we had to break down a wall of the clinic because the refrigerator didn’t fit through the door. Doing this was much easier than it would have been in the US—we just took out a few nails and the vertical wood planks came out, and then we sawed off a piece of the horizontal support and voila, we had a hole big enough for a refrigerator. Anyway, over the past couple days I had been reading the manual and not quite understanding some of the instructions. I was consequently extremely nervous about this training, considering that not only was I going to have to explain everything, but I would have to do so with a translator that spoke only relatively simple English (for example did not know the words dial, mold, or metal). As soon as I got a look at the refrigerator and the electronic controls on the top, though, everything clicked into place. The diagrams that were unclear suddenly made perfect sense and I felt a lot better going into the training. Though I had some translation problems, as far as I can tell it went off without a hitch. If we get a call in a week saying that they tried to fix a broken thermostat with a sledgehammer I’ll need to revisit my confidence, but for now I am happy with how things went.

Group Photo

The other interesting part of the day was our visit to a local shrine during the afternoon. As I mentioned before most of the people in this area are adherents of a spirit religion of which I do not know specifics. At this shrine they worship a pair of enormous elephant tusks, intricately carved with animals and other designs. I’d never seen tusks even close to as big as the ones in this shrine. There was also a Buddha in the shrine, underneath the tusks. I asked our guide if they worshipped the Buddha as well. He said no, that it was only there so that Buddhists who come to visit “feel more comfortable.” Bizarre, no?



Friday was a day of traveling home. We woke up at 5 am to get an early enough start to get home by the evening and to avoid hiking during the hottest part of the day. We left by about 630—part of the delay was due to our discovery that one of the two porters who were coming with us to carry our equipment was a strict adherent to the spirit religion of the area and therefore refused to carry—or even touch—the backpacks holding the gear. Maybe he thought that there were some animal products in it (leather?) and so it was related to not being allowed to eat meat? He brought a bamboo basket, however, and they loaded as much of the gear as they could into it. I volunteered to carry the backpack along with some of the lighter gear. Only after a couple minutes did I discover that one of the arm straps was broken, and held in place by being tied to the chest strap. This meant the bag was hopelessly lopsided and I couldn’t tighten the arms. Still the bag wasn’t too heavy and having a waist strap was nice, so it wasn’t much of an issue.

Probably because we left so early, the hike out wasn’t nearly as tiring as the hike in, and I think was quicker as well. When we got back to the truck (after an incredible meal at the house where we spent the first night) I volunteered to sit in the truck bed because it would have been really crowded in the back seat with three people and I like feeling the wind and seeing the view. I really enjoyed the ride, though it was incredibly long (almost 7 hours) considering I had nothing to do but look at the view. The mountain scenery was incredible, especially as the sun was setting, and I got great views of villages and refugee camps. For the first couple hours the roads were extremely bad, and sometimes we hit potholes that made me feel like I’d punctured a lung, but once we hit the highway it was smooth sailing.

View of the Mountain Landscape

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The article below was featured in the May/June 2009 edition of Common Place Magazine and highlights some of the work done by Asofenix in Nicaragua. The article was written by Emily Will  and photographed by Melissa Engle.

For her 17 years of married life, Marbellyz Ortíz Espinoza has dreaded one part of each day — rising between 4 and 5 every morning. It’s not just the wind that howls and gusts indoors through the gaps between her home’s sheet-metal roof and adobe walls or leaving the comfort of bed to start another rigorous day as a farmer’s wife in the isolated mountains of central Nicaragua.

Marbellyz Ortíz Espinoza

Marbellyz Ortíz Espinoza

It’s the darkness. Espinoza finds it spooky and has nothing to ward it off but a flickering wick sticking out the opening of a soup-size can of kerosene. The candil, as it’s called, spews as much thick smoke as it does light, and the 35-year-old mother knows its fumes are not healthy. The “lamp” is also hazardous, quick to erupt in flames when kerosene leaks around the wick. So, when a switch was flipped and three solar-powered compact fluorescent bulbs illuminated the home as dusk settled one January evening, smiles brightened the faces of Espinoza, her husband Pánfilo Enrique Guzmán and their sons, ages 15 and 5. The house, filled with the family, MCC workers and partners and several young community technicians trained to install the solar systems, reverberated with expressions of joy, awe and congratulations. The gift of solar power is coming to rural Nicaraguan villages, such as Espinoza’s community of Corozo, with the help of a young MCC partner organization called Asociación Fenix, Asofenix for short. MCC workers Sarah and Seth Hays, of Lakewood, Colo., work alongside communities in solar projects and on other renewable energy projects, such as biodigestors, microhydroturbines and wind turbines.

Pánfilo Enrique Guzmán, right, works on wiring a flourescent fixture that will provide reliable light to his home

Pánfilo Enrique Guzmán, right, works on wiring a flourescent fixture that will provide reliable light to his home

Entire communities, notes Seth Hays, are entering an age of electricity without relying on the fossil fuels that most Canadian and U.S. residents take for granted. “Environmentally friendly energy sources will allow rural Nicaraguans to develop and improve their livelihood for many years to come in a manner that will not be threatened by international markets and trends,” Hays says. “Nicaragua has great potential for supplying a large percent of its energy needs through renewable energy.” Asofenix founder and director Jaime Muñoz, reared in an impoverished family in rural Nicaragua, views the development of renewable energy sources as an initial move to help isolated communities deal with the challenges of surviving on near-barren land. A large project such as installing solar panels is often Asofenix’s first step. “We are committed to working alongside a community for 10 years. The large projects are what bring us into the community, but that is just the start of our work,” Hays says, describing how Asofenix forms committees to encourage residents to work together to make their communities stronger. “Our dream is that they, in the future, will find the problems in the community and work on ways to solve them for themselves,” Hays says. The challenges are great. Like many other Central American and Caribbean countries, Nicaragua’s forests and mineral resources have been nearly picked clean. Its land and water have been depleted and polluted to produce exports such as cotton, coffee and beef. Foreign enterprises and the country’s elite continue to profit while many residents struggle to simply get by. Rural areas often lack infrastructure and basic services. The families in the communities in which Asofenix works combine various survival tactics.

During the rainy season, those with access to land cultivate basic food crops, such as corn and beans.

Marvin Velasquez, left, and Milyer Enrique Guzmán fit together the electronic parts while Kenneth Jose Ortíz Guzmán, left, and Jeninsa Dayana watch

Marvin Velasquez, left, and Milyer Enrique Guzmán fit together the electronic parts while Kenneth Jose Ortíz Guzmán, left, and Jeninsa Dayana watch

Then some or all family members may migrate to Costa Rica to pick coffee during the three-month harvest. Others move to Managua for either short- or long-term employment in maquilas — foreign-owned assembly plants. Nicaragua now ranks as the Western Hemisphere’s second poorest nation. And, as in Haiti, the hemisphere’s most impoverished, deforestation is creating conditions in which erosion, nutrient runoff and the drying of water sources combine into a downward spiral of failing crops, barren land and worsening poverty. Asofenix director Muñoz, though, chooses to hone in on what rural Nicaragua does have — plentiful sunshine that can be tapped for renewable energy and the people themselves, driven by a fierce desire to improve their lives and to do whatever it takes to get their children out of poverty. Asofenix focuses on solar power for three major uses — to pump water to families’ homes, to pump water for drip irrigation to small plots of land and to provide limited electricity to homes. The capacity to light a few fluorescent bulbs can give families their first opportunity to bring activities, such as sewing and homework, into the evening hours, as well as the opportunity to run items such as a radio or television. José Felix Salazar, 56, who lives in the community of Bramadero, about an hour’s walk from Corozo, shares his delight that solar-powered drip irrigation is allowing him, for the first time, to grow a crop during dry months when community of Candelaria, one of Asofenix’s first. Impressed, Salazar went to see Muñoz about the possibility of a similar project in Bramadero. He was soon helping to organize his community’s 45 families to install solar panels to pump water from a well to faucets at individual homes, some as much as a kilometer away. Each family agreed to contribute 10 days of labor, to plant trees to protect the water source and to improve sanitation by constructing home latrines. That was in 2007. Since then, the piped water has eased families’ bare-boned budgets and never-ending toil. “Before, we went to fetch water every morning after breakfast, and we had to carry it home on our heads,” says Salazar’s wife, Flor de María Gonzales. She and her 12-year-old daughter, Anielka, hauled the water over a rocky road a 15-minute walk away. Occasionally when they weren’t able to fetch water, they had to buy it. Now they merely step out their back door and open a tap — a service that is costing them a mere 10 Nicaraguan cents per pail, 60 times less than they paid to buy a pail of water before. They and the community’s other 44 families deposit their water payments into a common fund for the system’s upkeep and maintenance. In this region, Seth Hays says, about 30 percent of heads of household migrate to Costa Rica during its his land would normally sit idle.

José Felix Salazar

José Felix Salazar

His small plot — about 0.8 of an acre of emerging tomato and watermelon plants — offers rows of green among the brown fields that mark this land in dry season. And it’s drawing attention. “Many have come to see it, and they all say the plot is beautiful,” he says. Salazar was instrumental in bringing solar power to this area. A few years ago, a man who came to buy a pig from him mentioned a solar water project going up in the coffee harvest, and in some communities, almost 80 percent of the men go. About 5 percent of the area’s residents live and work there throughout the year. Solar power and drip irrigation may provide an alternative. “Our hope is that it will give people a source of income so that they don’t have to migrate to Costa Rica,” Hays says. Salazar’s dream is that solar-powered pumps will eventually allow him to irrigate enough of his land to bring home some family members. Salazar says his eldest son Fredy, 27, moved to Costa Rica to work in construction, work that is increasingly harder to find and paying less. Daughter Mary Luz, 24, wouldn’t mind giving up her job in a Managua maquila, which requires working as quickly as possible, doing the same task, such as sewing a collar on a shirt, over and over again for 10 or more hours a day.

His oldest daughter and her husband, who live nearby, have already expressed interest in farming with Salazar. And he hopes to provide more opportunity for his 18-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter who still live at home. “This project is the best one to have come here, better than the road, electricity and the school,” Salazar says. Muñoz is glad people are dreaming of brighter futures but, with 26 years of grassroots experience in this region, he’s also aware of the perils in imported and high-tech solutions to the problems of impoverished rural areas. He’s designing Asofenix projects to be as grounded in the community as possible. In Corozo, for example, Asofenix has trained six people, including two teenage women, to install and maintain solar-powered generating systems. Guzmán, Espinoza’s husband, is part of the team, and the technicians’ first “real-life” test of their skills was wiring Guzmán and Espinoza’s home.

Salazar fits the lid back on a water tank. A solar-powered pump provides water for drip irrigation to his fields

Salazar fits the lid back on a water tank. A solar-powered pump provides water for drip irrigation to his fields

The young workers glowed with satisfaction when the bulbs brightened the darkness that January evening. Guzmán, who was voted president of the project committee, says, “We’ve never before had a successful project here. We are a very, very poor community and, till now, we’ve been a very, very ignored community without hope. Now, people are happier.” Their house was the eighth of 24 local homes to be connected to a solar panel. Guzmán remained in Corozo this year, rather than migrating to Costa Rica, to give local leadership to the effort. But neither he nor Espinoza are complaining about forgoing the coffee harvest earnings.

Community members in Bálsamo, Nicaragua, take a break from installing a solar-powered drip irrigation system

A community member in Bálsamo, Nicaragua, watches the installation of a solar-powered drip irrigation system

They are being repaid by witnessing not only the power of the sun that now lights their home, but also by the personal and community power sparked in working together with neighbors. And while Espinoza may still have to rise with the roosters, she’s looking forward to doing it without fear of the dark — or a smoky, potentially explosive candil.


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The 2009 Energy Globe Awards, which recognizes renewable energy projects worldwide, were held this past spring in Prague.  Green Empowerment’s Solar Mobile Clinic project in Burma was selected as the winner in the “Fire” category.  The project, implemented by Thai partner Border Green Energy Team (BGET), was also voted overall Grand Prize Winner by the audience at a televised gala during a meeting of the European Union environment ministers in Prague. Green Empowerment was also singled out as one of the top three organizations in the “Water” category for its solar water pumping and community empowerment projects in Nicaragua, specifically in Bramadero.

The award ceremony has been posted online and can be seen in its entirety at the following link:  ENERGY GLOBE World Award Gala 2009.

The full video is 52 minutes long. The ‘Water’ category, which recognizes Green Empowerment in Bramadero Nicaragua, can be found at the 17 minute mark; the ‘Fire’ category, which recognizes Green Empowerment’s & BGET’s  solar clinic & hospital project in Burma, can be found at the 32 minute mark; and the Grand Award voting and result can be found at the 46 minute mark.


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