Thursday, July 29, 2010

Bluefields - The Reggae Coast

It has been a while since I added an update- and a lot has happened!

First, I spent a month on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua learning from a small NGO called Blue Energy. Blue Energy works to provide basic services to remote villages on the east coast of Nicaragua. They maintain offices in Bluefields-Nicaragua, San Francisco-California, and Paris-France. The Bluefields office is where all of the action happens. For the past 6 years Blue Energy has been working to provide basic services, focusing on electricity, to the small remote villages along the coast. It has not been easy. First of all, transportation to these communities is only possibly by boat. Some of them have a rudimentary public “panga” transportation system comprised of small motorboats, but some of them have no public transport whatsoever. No roads exist, and locals only come and go with their personal motorboats (if they are wealthy enough) or by hitching rides with fisherman as they come and go. This makes project planning, coordination, community interaction, and continual project oversight very difficult.

Blue Energy has been struggling to deal with these problems, on top of the inherent difficulty of engineering design and technology transfer. They have implemented mostly hybrid wind-solar electricity systems within the communities they work with. The wind turbines are manufactured in Bluefields by Blue Energy volunteers (mostly international) and employees (mostly local Nicaraguans) in a workshop donated for Blue Energy use by the local technical college, INATEC.The design is based on a low-cost wind turbine developed by Hugh Pigott of coil stators, hand-cut steel rotors mounted with high-power magnets, hand-carved wooden turbine blades, the supporting steel framework, and galvanized steel support towers are all manufactured in house from readily available materials found in hardware stores. Over the years, design and fabrication improvements have made the process more streamlined, although much is still done completely by hand with the “measure twice, cut once” mentality.

In communities they have worked with the wind turbines are paired with a small solar array. Together, the two provide power to a bank of batteries, used to power a local community center or small health clinic. The idea is very powerful, and very attractive. But many problems have caused setbacks to this idealistic bunch of young employees and volunteers. First of all, the problem was defined as an engineering one from the get-go: how to provide electricity with wind and sun in the difficult conditions of the Caribbean coast. Blue Energy has realized that possibly the most important piece of the puzzle is community integration and understanding, as poorly maintained batteries, increasing maintenance costs, and less than ideal wind conditions have caused them to reconsider the use of wind turbines in every community. Two local women and a small team of volunteers head up the “Community” team and have tried to maintain better relations with the local energy committees, helped them organize and raise funds, and tried to help the technical team guide their designs in a more appropriate direction. Although the community team has obviously made huge strides, the results are mixed. The decision has been made to remove the turbines from various communities, leaving the solar array as their source of electricity. Also, lack of communication with the local government has led to the arrival of mini-grids of electricity in communities with BE energy systems, making them all-but obsolete. On the short team, the Renewable Energy system is more economical than the grid as no fees are needed to provide electricity, but on the long term the sky-high prices of deep-cycle batteries will ultimately render the systems cost-prohibitive, that is, unless the community organizes a fairly hefty battery-replacement savings account. Many problems are left to be solved.

.Blue Energy is also attempting to branch into areas of other basic services such as potable water and economic development. They have developed their own bio-sand water filter construction system and have placed more than 20 filters in communities, some purchased and some donated. Still, lack of sufficient funding seems to be hamstringing their operations. They are coming to the end of a large grant that has covered most funding over the past year or so and are waiting for hopeful approval of more, larger grants. Sadly, the grant approval process seems to have no definite time schedule and in the mean time people are waiting…

Nevertheless, I was lucky enough to visit some communities with Blue Energy systems, help with some wind turbine tweaking, climb up a turbine tower and help lower it for maintenance, as well as observe BE volunteers in action fixing damaged systems, installing new batteries, and training locals in system maintenance. Blue Energy is up against it, but one can only hope that with every day they will learn more and develop a model for rural development that will benefit their communities in a environmentally, economically, and most importantly socially sustainable manner.

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