How Solar Energy Empowered a Nicaraguan Community Once Devastated by War
By Laurie Guevara-Stone
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 by 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 (NGO) called Grupo Fenix received a grant from the Canadian Falls Brook Center to reintegrate landmine survivors back into society. The NGO 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 one of the poorest departments of Nicaragua.
Grupo Fenix, founded by engineering professor Susan Kinne of the Engineering University of Nicaragua and made up of many of her engineering students, taught the villagers how to solder together discarded solar cells they received from some large photovoltaic (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 one of the landmine survivors 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 training 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 6th grade, he has traveled to Haiti and Costa Rica to teach people how to construct solar panels, and is a co-author of a paper on an encapsulation method he helped develop in Elsevier’s 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 approximately 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 early years of the group’s work they had been constructing solar cookers based out of different members’ homes. 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
While experimenting with their solar cookers the women made an interesting discovery with coffee, one of Nicaragua’s main export crops. Since the country’s good beans are exported leaving the 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 it took the bitterness away, and left 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, they decided to create a restaurant.
Through more grants, the women built the first solar restaurant in Nicaragua aptly named La Casita Solar (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.” according to 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, which is 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 6th grade, is overcrowded, and has little access to educational resources like books. Many of the 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 out of earthen materials—cob, wattle and daub, adobe and earthen plasters.
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, after school tutoring, and environmental education for older children and teens, as well as parenting classes for adults.
The Solar Women have put thousands of hours of labor into these projects, and there were times when 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” can then 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 them grow and realize their full potential. “What’s happening in this community,” Susan 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.”
It’s no doubt that this community has been completely transformed by renewable energy technologies.
This post originally appeared on the Rocky Mountain Institute's RMI Outlet.
Visit EcoWatch’s RENEWABLES page for more related news on this topic.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.
By Betsy Mason
For decades, climate scientist David Keith of Harvard University has been trying to get people to take his research seriously. He's a pioneer in the field of geoengineering, which aims to combat climate change through a range of technological fixes. Over the years, ideas have included sprinkling iron in the ocean to stimulate plankton to suck up more carbon from the atmosphere or capturing carbon straight out of the air.
Solar geoengineering would involve injecting reflective aerosols from high-altitude planes into the layer of the upper atmosphere known as the stratosphere, which stretches between 10 to 50 kilometers (6 to 31 miles) above Earth's surface. The idea is that the aerosol particles would reflect a small amount of sunlight away from the planet, reducing the amount of heat trapped by greenhouse gases and mitigating some of the effects of climate change.
The planned Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment will send a balloon carrying scientific instruments in a gondola into the stratosphere. The instruments will release a small amount of material — likely ice or mineral dust — to form a kilometer-long plume of aerosol particles (left). Modified airboat propellers will allow the gondola to maneuver above the plume (middle) and lower instruments into the plume to take repeated measurements of how the particles spread through the stratosphere (right). ADAPTED FROM J.A. DYKEMA ET AL / PHILOSOPHICAL TRANSACTIONS OF THE ROYAL SOCIETY A 2014
David Keith envisions using multiple approaches to combat climate change. The red line shows how the impacts of climate change would worsen with a business-as-usual scenario of unabated burning of fossil fuels and other greenhouse gas emissions. Aggressively cutting emissions bends that curve, and removing carbon from the atmosphere offers further cuts, but there are still consequences from the already high levels of carbon dioxide. In this scenario, solar geoengineering would lessen the impact from existing atmospheric carbon dioxide, effectively carving the top off the curve.<p>Some people think we should use it only as a get-out-of-jail card in an emergency. Some people think we should use it to quickly try to get back to a preindustrial climate. I'm arguing we use solar geoengineering to cut the top off the curve by gradually starting it and gradually ending it.</p><p><strong>Do you feel optimistic about the chances that solar geoengineering will happen and can make a difference in the climate crisis?</strong></p><p>I'm not all that optimistic right now because we seem to be so much further away from an international environment that's going to allow sensible policy. And that's not just in the US. It's a whole bunch of European countries with more populist regimes. It's Brazil. It's the more authoritarian India and China. It's a more nationalistic world, right? It's a little hard to see a global, coordinated effort in the near term. But I hope those things will change.</p>
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