In recent stories in the Nicaragua Dispatch, Nicaragua has been described as a renewable energy paradise and as ranking third in the Latin America renewables market. But neither story mentions what has become Nicaragua’s forgotten resource: solar energy. Perhaps this is not surprising as the government’s own assessments of its achievement in moving away from fossil fuels rarely include solar power. Why is this and what contribution is it making?
In theory solar has a big advantage over other sources such as wind and hydro. In part this is because it is so abundant and in part because its strongest concentration is close to areas with the greatest population densities. As the map shows, solar energy is strongest in the region from Managua northwards and is powerful even on the Caribbean coast. Its disadvantage is that, unless expensive solar farms are created, its spare energy can only be fed into the grid if there are reliable ways of metering the input and of paying for it, which Nicaragua clearly doesn’t have. So many in government view it as a solution mainly for those rich enough to afford a domestic system: and the contributions made by such systems are very difficult to measure.
But the fact that solar systems can’t be easily connected to the grid also gives it an advantage in places that the grid hasn’t yet reached. In the many small rural settlements still lacking electricity, unless they happen to be near main roads the cost of extending the grid to them may well be prohibitive, given the low consumption levels of peasant farming families. Solar is an ideal alternative, because a kit for an individual house is no longer prohibitively expensive providing some form of credit is available.
In the rural area north of Masaya, between the two big lakes, there are many scattered communities still unconnected to the grid. A local NGO, ADIC Masaya (Asociación de Desarrollo Integral Comunitario) has been working for five years to bring ‘la luz’ to families who don’t have it. In this time has carried out over 200 installations funded mainly by organisations in the UK via the Leicester Masaya Link Group. The cost of a typical scheme has been falling, and is now about $400 per household. This is recovered, without interest, over a period of 3-4 years. The funds are then recycled in maintenance work or in funding new installations.
Studies have shown that a typical family can save money with a solar kit if the costs can be spread. This is because lighting their houses with torches, candles or kerosene lamps is expensive, especially when taking into account the cost of travelling to buy batteries or fuel. Also, kerosene fumes are toxic and contribute to global warming. Solar kits are healthier, safer and also save carbon emissions.
There are several keys to the success of the ADIC project. One is that in the areas where it works, it has a reputation for being trustworthy and so people are willing to enter loan arrangements with it. Another is that, before working in a new area, it takes interested people to see families who already have installations, so they can learn for themselves how they work. ADIC also follows up any maintenance issues and resolves problems like batteries failing or being misconnected.
ADIC isn’t the only organisation working with small-scale solar, but some schemes that have had massive initial investment have failed because of poor follow-up, or because families can’t afford new batteries when the old ones need replacing. Nevertheless, now that costs have fallen, and provided that a trusted organisation is available to carry out the work, solar is a very viable source of electricity for rural communities.
Perhaps even more surprising is why better-off people, including foreigners who have invested here, haven’t picked up on the advantages of solar. Although it’s true that (unlike, say, in California) it’s not possible to feed spare power back into the grid, solar has the advantage that it is highly dependable in a country where, especially in rural areas, there are still outages. The price of a full-scale domestic system is high but running costs are negligible, while charges from Disnorte/Dissur continue to rise. If more wealthy people here were to buy into solar, it would help reduce the costs and perhaps bring the day nearer when there is a local manufacturer of reliable panels.
Original post and comments: Nicaragua Dispatch