Saturday, May 3, 2014

Solar Innovation Gives Nicaraguan Community A Brighter Future

Forty years ago, Sabana Grande, a small community in northern Nicaragua, was ravaged by war. Now you will find people sitting under solar-powered lights, eating solar-cooked chicken and drinking smoothies made with a bicycle-powered blender. Sabana Grande (pop. 2,000), in the mountains of Totogalpa about 20 miles from the Honduran border, has embraced a solar culture that has transformed the community.

Turning landmine survivors into solar technicians

The war between the government Sandinistas and the Contra rebels left hundreds of people disabled by landmines, especially in the northern part of the country. In 1999, a Nicaraguan non-governmental organization called Grupo Fenix received a grant from the Canadian Falls Brook Center to reintegrate landmine survivors back into society. The NGO — founded by engineering professor Susan Kinne of the Engineering University of Nicaragua and made up of many of her engineering students  — decided it would teach the landmine survivors how to make solar panels, providing them with both a livelihood and a way to get electricity in a poor, off-grid region. It focused on Sabana Grande, an agricultural community in one of the poorest regions in Nicaragua.

Grupo Fenix taught the villagers how to solder together discarded solar cells they received from some large PV manufacturers to make solar PV panels up to 60 watts in size. They also held classes on installing and maintaining off-grid solar PV systems. The Sabana Grande solar workshop was born, and soon a few of the trained farmers-turned-technicians started selling small solar home lighting systems to people in the community and throughout the region.

Marco Antonio Perez is a landmine survivor trained by Grupo Fenix. "One gets a complex, and believes that their life is over," he said. "To reintegrate into society, to feel useful again, took five years." After being trained in photovoltaics, he directed the Sabana Grande solar workshop for years, and now runs a solar company in a nearby town. Despite his lack of a formal education, having only graduated from the sixth grade, he has traveled to Haiti and Costa Rica to teach people how to construct solar panels, and is co-author of a paper on an encapsulation method he helped develop that was published in the Elsevier journal Solar Energy Materials and Solar Cells.

Women's empowerment through solar energy

The engineering students also brought along some solar cookers, and showed them to the women in the community. The women were intrigued — in Nicaragua about 90 percent of the rural population cooks over open fires, and respiratory diseases are the leading cause of death for women. Soon the women were learning how to build their own solar cookers and using them to cook for their families, greatly reducing their firewood consumption and smoke exposure. The women were hooked, and organized themselves into an organization called Las Mujeres Solares de Totogalpa (the Solar Women of Totogalpa), which officially became a cooperative in 2010. In the early years, solar cookers were constructed in the homes of members. In 2005, they decided they needed a place of their own.

With the help of Grupo Fenix, the Solar Women acquired three acres of donated land along the Pan-American Highway and secured a grant from the Noble Foundation. They then embarked on building their own solar center to house both the PV workshop and the solar cooker workshop. The women learned how to make adobe bricks and after donating thousands of hours of time and making 6,000 adobe bricks, they built their own building, which houses an office, a warehouse and workshop space for constructing solar panels, solar battery chargers, solar cookers and solar driers.

La Casita Solar

La Casita Solar (Credit: Grupo Fenix)
While experimenting with their solar cookers, the women made an interesting discovery with coffee, one of Nicaragua's main export crops. Because the country's good beans are exported, leaving bitter green beans in the country, coffee found in Nicaragua is not very tasty. But when the women roasted the coffee beans in the solar ovens, the bitterness was taken away, leaving a rich, delicious flavor. Wanting to market their new discovery, along with the solar dried fruits and recipes they were developing for the solar ovens, the women decided to create a restaurant.

Through more grants, the women built the first solar restaurant in Nicaragua, aptly named La Casita Solar (PDF, Spanish) (The Little Solar House). They grow their own organic fruits and vegetables on adjoining land. The restaurant has solar-powered lights and a freezer, and uses solar cookers, fuel-efficient charcoal stoves (from charcoal made from the agricultural waste from their land), biogas stoves (from biogas made from the restaurant's latrine plus added cow manure) and fuel-efficient firewood stoves. "Truly, it has been a success for us, the Solar Women, to build this dream that we've had," said Nimia Lopez, a cooperative member.

Empowering the next generation

Local kids wanted to get in on the action as well, so the Solar Youth group was formed. One of their first projects was to construct a bicycle-powered blender, now used at the solar restaurant. Getting the youth involved was important for Grupo Fenix and for the Solar Women. The school in the community only goes up to the sixth grade, is overcrowded and has little access to educational resources such as books. Many women in the Solar Women's group only have a second or third grade education, and they wanted more for their kids. One of the most recent projects Grupo Fenix has undertaken is to help the community build a solar youth center. With the help of Earthen Endeavors Natural Building, the group recently built a beautiful building, El Centro Solar, out of earthen materials — cob, wattle and daub, adobe and earthen plasters.

El Centro Solar (Credit: Grupo Fenix)
The building will be used as both a preschool and daycare center — two services not currently available in Sabana Grande — and will provide extracurricular activities, afterschool tutoring and environmental education for older children and teens, as well as parenting classes for adults.

Green hours

The Solar Women have put thousands of hours of labor into these projects, and at times things were moving slowly and morale was down. With help from Grupo Fenix and an international economics major volunteer, the group came up with an innovative solution to secure compensation for their efforts. Each woman logs her hours spent working with the cooperative. Those "green hours" then can be used to purchase a solar cooker, a solar PV lighting system, or other appliances such as flashlights and battery chargers that are either donated to the group or bought with cooperative funds.

In Totogalpa, only 15 percent of the population has electricity in their homes. Currently all 20 members of the Solar Women's Cooperative have electricity in their homes, 85 percent of which have solar photovoltaic systems (the electric grid now goes through a part of the community).

Nicaragua continues to be the second poorest country in the western hemisphere (after Haiti), and only 30 percent of the rural population has access to electricity. Yet the people of Sabana Grande have shown that a brighter future is possible. Unlike many development projects where an NGO leaves the community after a project is completed, the Managua-based Grupo Fenix has stayed with this community for 15 years, helping it grow and realize its full potential.

"What's happening in this community," Kinne explained, "is a good example of how people can learn to work together with nature, work within the limits and still make a higher quality of life."


Friday, May 2, 2014

Solar Energy Continues to See Success in Japan

Document highlights the progress that solar power has made in 2013

Solar energy has found major success in Japan thanks to support from the country’s government. The Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry has released a new document that outlines the progress that the solar sector has made in 2013. The document highlights government incentives that have supported the adoption of solar power among homeowners and businesses alike. One of these incentives is the country’s solar feed-in tariff, which is considered one of the most aggressive energy initiatives in the world.

4.58 GW of solar capacity were introduced to Japan in the first 8 months of 2013

According to the document, some 4.58 gigawatts of installed solar capacity went online throughout Japan in the first eight months of 2013. The Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry notes that in supporting technological advancement, the country has been able to make use of highly efficient photovoltaic technology, which has helped it tap into solar power more effectively. The government currently plans for 10% of its energy to come from renewable sources by 2020, and much of this energy may comes from solar power systems.

Nuclear disasters triggers more support for solar energy and other forms of clean power

Japan’s intense attraction to solar power was sparked in the wake of the Fukushima disaster of 2011. A powerful earthquake and subsequent tsunami triggered a serious nuclear crisis that is still being worked to resolve to this day. The disaster caused the Japanese government to shy away from nuclear power. In an effort to fill the void left by the absence of nuclear energy, Japan began focusing more heavily on various forms of renewable energy, including solar power.

Government support helps make Japan a very attractive market

Japan is considered among the most promising markets in the world when it comes to solar energy. The country’s incentives have proven to be quite attractive to energy developers specializing in solar power. These incentives are likely to continue bringing new projects to the country, further increasing Japan’s solar power capacity and helping the country break away from fossil-fuels and nuclear power.


Thursday, May 1, 2014

Solar Leases Forge Domestic Trend, But Demand Varies

High energy prices in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley are causing many consumers to search for ways to cut their electricity bills.
Prices in the region have been substantially above the national average for some years now (averaging 20 cents per kilowatt hours, versus the national average of 12 cents), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
That, in turn, is the cue for solar companies like San Jose, Calif.-based SunPower Corp. to tap into new consumer markets by offering creative financing options that allow customers to lease solar panel systems for their homes, sometimes with no down payment.
SunPower Vice President Martin DeBono said the demand for their panels has prompted the company to develop creative financing options moving forward.
“To meet a variety of customer needs, we offer an array of tailored financing options,” DeBono said. “One size does not fit all, and offering options makes solar more accessible to more families.”

Indeed, a mix of financing options may be the next big thing in solar. Or so says SunPower’s Chief Executive Officer Tom Werner.

“In the North American residential market, demand for our rooftop solutions remains very strong,” said Werner in a statement. “We’re offering increasingly broad balanced arrays of tailored financing options in order to meet specific customer requirements, including cash sales, loans and leases.”

SunPower was able to expand its leasing market thanks to a recent $220 million partnership — basically a debt loan — with Bank of America. The loan will allow SunPower to significantly expand its leasing program past its current 20,000-customer base, since solar leases have strong long-term payoffs but weak short-term returns for the firm.

“We expect a higher mix of lease versus cash in the coming quarter as we benefit from ample sources of third-party financing for our program,” SunPower Chief Financial Officer Chuck Boynton said in a statement that referenced the Bank of America deal. “With the addition of BoA, our strong balance sheet and superior products, we no longer see financing capacity as a significant bottleneck to growing our business.”

This financing bottleneck should be averted thanks to the BofA deal, according to SunPower President of Regions Howard Wenger, who said he foresees a year of strong growth in the lease market.

“We’re really not facing a constraint in lease capacity going forward,” Wenger said in a statement. “We expect a disproportionally strong year for leases, at least 50 percent or higher growth in leases for 2014.”

In addition, SunPower has also made inroads in the domestic homeowners market by partnering with homebuilding firms to shore up its foothold in the sector. A recent deal with Meritage Homes is another step SunPower is taking to create a new customer base. Meritage constructs about 7,000 homes per year, and says that roughly 10 percent of its customers choose to install solar.

“Increasingly, homebuyers understand the return on investment that a high-quality, energy-efficient, solar-powered new home delivers,” Werner said in a statement. “We’re very proud to partner with Meritage Homes.”

Also from the Peninsula Press: SolarCity’s acquisition of Common Assets points to a new investment strategy

Meritage, which is the ninth largest public homebuilder in the country, received an award from the Environmental Protection Agency in 2013 — they’ve been offering solar options for their customers for the past four years. SunPower’s three-year agreement with Meritage will allow it to offer solar installation deals to new homeowners across the Bay Area and nationwide as their homes are being built.

Despite a strong year in the international market, North America remains SunPower’s most profitable region; cash purchases accounted for 70 percent of all residential sales in the region, leases included.

However, leasing may not be for everyone. Mark Byington, the president of Mountain View-based Cobalt Power Systems, says that his solar panel installation business isn’t seeing a spike in demand for leasing options.

“Actually, we’re seeing more and more people just buying the system rather than leasing it,” Byington said. “In the long run, you save more money by owning the system, rather than by leasing it. A standard lease tends to have a 20-year commitment — people lease systems when they’re trying to preserve cash [in the short term].”

SunPower acknowledged that leasing may not always be the most cost-efficient for some customers, but pointed out that short-term energy savings are worth considering.

“Cash purchases can be more cost-effective over the long term,” said SunPower representative Ingrid Ekstrom. “But leases allow many customers to start saving on their electricity bills from their first day of operation.”

This story originally appeared on the Peninsula Press. Emiliano Vazquez covers SunPower for the Peninsula Press.