On the hills along Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, hand-built wind turbines spin with the seaside winds, providing remote villages with clean electricity for lights, CB radios, and small appliances. In these communities, where indigenous Mestizo and Creole people live in thatch-roofed huts, even a small amount of clean electricity can have a huge impact on their quality of life.
With nearly half the world’s inhabitants and only a fraction of the world’s wealth, developing countries such as Nicaragua are more susceptible than developed nations to the crippling financial effects of rising fuel prices. Unlike the coal-based United States, Nicaragua is particularly vulnerable, since nearly 80% of its electricity is fueled by imported oil. Along the country’s Caribbean coast, where approximately one-tenth of the country’s population lives, the situation is particularly grim. More than 70% of the region does not have electricity, according to Nicaragua’s Ministry of Energy and Mines (MEM).
As the poorest region in the country and the second poorest in the Western Hemisphere, Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast suffers from high unemployment, illiteracy, and primitive health care. A thick jungle to the west and inadequate infrastructure—a lack of roads and bridges within the region and connecting to inland points—isolates the coastal communities from fruitful commerce, contributing to massive migration to the country’s bigger cities.
But one nonprofit organization—blueEnergy—is making a difference in this region by providing affordable and sustainable energy solutions that empower these small communities and the people in them. Because blueEnergy manufactures wind turbines and other key components locally, they can keep energy costs low and improve equipment serviceability, while boosting employment where it is desperately needed. And, with this less expensive energy, they can also help foster sustainable economic growth. Fourteen local men and women are employed at blueEnergy’s locations throughout Nicaragua, receiving on-the-job training, RE know-how, and computer skills.
“With diesel fuel more than $5 a gallon and difficult to transport, and no hydro power nor geothermal resources, wind is a natural and preferred choice for Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast,” says Mathias Craig, the executive director and cofounder of blueEnergy.
The organization got its start in 2002 as a class project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before being incorporated in 2003 and opening offices in France, Nicaragua, and the United States. Its mission is to develop a model of low-cost, sustainable electrification of remote, off-grid communities that can be replicated around the world.
For now, the organization focuses its efforts exclusively on project development in Nicaragua, where the MEM expressed interest in using blueEnergy wind turbines countrywide for unmet energy needs. BlueEnergy maintains offices in Managua and Bluefields, and the organization has built and installed eight energy systems along the Caribbean coast.
In the Meskito community of Kakabila, a new system—200 watts of solar-electric modules and a 1-kilowatt wind turbine mounted on an 80-foot tilt-up tower—provides electricity for two schools and a community center. Further north, strong and smooth coastal winds propel a new 1 KW turbine on a 40-foot tilt-up tower, which provides primary power for a school in the small fishing community of Set Net.
“The solar resource on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua isn’t stellar, but it’s good,” Craig says. “We use small amounts of solar electricity to supplement energy production during low-wind months. This allows us to size our wind system optimally and use smaller battery banks for energy storage, thereby reducing life-cycle cost.”
In addition to electrifying schools and community centers, blueEnergy’s systems serve as community battery-charging stations. With a loan of approximately $400 through a local microfinance agency, community members can purchase battery kits, which include a 12-volt, deep-cycle, 105-amp-hour battery and a battery box. These batteries can power lights, radios, and small appliances at homes or businesses. Users pay a small fee to charge their batteries, with the cost determined jointly by the community and blueEnergy. Revenue earned goes into a community energy fund, which is used to operate and maintain the renewable energy systems.
BlueEnergy relies heavily on word of mouth and community meetings to attract new projects. In most cases, the villages seek out blueEnergy after seeing a system in a neighboring village.
The process begins with an assessment to determine if an RE system would be appropriate for the community. Based on established criteria, blueEnergy evaluates the local electrification need, site-specific wind and solar potential, and most critically, how the community organizes itself and handles community responsibilities.
BlueEnergy systems are custom designed for every application, with costs typically ranging from $10,000 to $20,000 for an installed system. This cost is expected to go down as blueEnergy expands its operations. Through grants and private donations, the nonprofit currently bears all the monetary costs associated with manufacturing and installing the systems. Instead of cash, the community contributes a fair amount of equity in labor, food, lodging, transportation, and, occasionally, materials for sheds or storage buildings to house components.
“It is absolutely critical that the community understands that they have to give something up to get the system,” Craig says. “We give them the ideas, but they have to be willing to work for it and take ownership of the system.”
To this end, blueEnergy asks the community to form an energy commission, made of six to eight members who are elected by the populous. This group serves as a tool through which the community manages the system.
It is the community’s responsibility to maintain the system once it has been installed. Regular preventive maintenance involves lubrication, stripping off corrosion from the turbine housing, sanding down any defects in the blades, and repainting the body of the turbine. The blueEnergy team provides an extensive training program that prepares community members for these tasks, and commits to helping local operators work through problems and repairs.
“By the time we leave, the communities understand how to fix and care for the system, but whether they choose to follow through in the long term and adopt renewable energy as a way of life, only time will tell,” Craig says. “So far, the people have taken good care of their RE systems.”
By providing power to schools and community centers, blueEnergy hopes that RE-generated electricity will improve the standard of living and empower people to work together to coordinate future clean energy systems. With electricity comes hope that these communities can open night schools, where those who must work in the fields during the day can learn to read and write—under lamps lit with renewably generated electricity. Someday, additional turbines in these communities may also support refrigeration for freezing fish and systems for purifying contaminated well water. And in time, blueEnergy’s systems may help promote cottage industries, and allow the region’s primitive health clinics to improve with new technology and top professionals.
As one of its first moves after winning the elections in 2006, the Sandinista government prioritized energy as a key national issue. With the deteriorating condition of old petroleum-based power plants worsening an already significant energy-production deficit, the MEM is actively searching for ways to meet energy needs with new investments in renewable generation. Craig says that the MEM has invited blueEnergy to the discussion table, and that they are in the process of discussing how blueEnergy’s electrification model could be replicated throughout the coastal region.
“I feel tremendous satisfaction when I see that—four years after our humble beginning—people are starting to believe in our vision, and are starting to think about the future and the importance of sustainability,” Craig says. “The attitude is infectious, and we can see it spreading in all facets of the lives of our employees and the community members we serve.”
Andreas Karelas has a dual master’s degree in International Affairs, and Natural Resources and Sustainable Development. He lives in San Francisco and works for the Center for Resource Solutions with the Green-e Energy program.
BlueEnergy • www.blueenergygroup.org
Hugh Piggott • www.scoraigwind.com • Homemade wind generator plans