Image via: Author's collection.
Last month, I traveled to Nicaragua with Power to the People and Green Empowerment to install solar panels on a school in rural Nicaragua. As a solar installer here in the states, it was fun, challenging and fascinating to see how solar is and is not installed in a developing country and the potential applications and huge impacts that it can have. The following are a few impressions I had on solar and Nicaragua. Please note these are just impressions from a week-long trip and are no way generalizations about all of Nicaragua or solar in ever developing nation.The Installation
First things first, it's not that there are no rules, but when you install outside of the United States, on some level you have to throw out the rule book and everything that you come to think of as "the code." You don't want a building to burn down due to an electrical fire, and you clearly want to do everything as correct as possible, but with limited resources, limited funds and no inspector breathing down your neck ready to fail you, you also just get the project done as best you can.
So Day One we arrive at the school ready to install but its several hiccups (and hours) later until the supplies arrive and everyone is divided into teams. Several men from the community had basic electrical experience and were in charge of installing the conduit, wires, jboxes and lightbulbs throughout the room. A second team was in charge of putting up the inverter and the wiring the batteries together. The third team was the roof crew, responsible for putting the solar panels on the roof (I was on this team). Note: a standard solar projects without volunteers would just involve the company and their 2-3 technicians. This project was different because it was a volunteer project to raise money and install solar panels on a school, thus the community was involved as much as possible throughout the entire process.
A solar installation in the United States involves a truck loaded down with tools, supplies, parts, spares, wasp killer, paint, ropes, and just about anything you might need to get a job completed and passed. This installation on the other hand had the minimal tools and parts - a pair of screw drivers, open-end wrenches, and some metal pieces cut specifically to match the length and width of the array. Basically, just figure what is the minimum amount of stuff that you can use and still get a system securely mounted to the roof - that is what we installed. The finished product is grounded and securely fastened to the roof, and even uses the same leak sealant that we use - just with way fewer parts. While installing the system, I kept getting that "yikes" feeling because there were so many "rules" that they didn't subscribe to. But to be honest, while they used minimal parts and steps, it wasn't wrong, just different.
Other differences include the connections between wires - in the United States we use wire nuts or tap connectors, but those are expensive and so at this job they just used a bunch of tape and sealed the box up. Systems in the states, with all of their fancy parts, use clamps between the two panels to hold them to the racking system. But those are expensive, so the solar company we worked with in Nicaragua came up with a better method - they just screw the panels directly onto the racking with a few nuts and bolts. This might not pass warranty with a normal system, but by using blemished panels, that wouldn't be under warranty anyways, you can get around that.
Also, systems in the US use panels that come with pre-assembled "leads" - the positive and negative wire that comes out of panel that connect the panels together and send electricity down to your home. The panels that we used didn't have pre-assembled leads, so we went in and basically made our own leads. We used an outdoor rated wire, opened up the junction box under the panel and screwed the leads in, directly connecting the panels to each other. This makes it harder to disconnect the system if you have to come back and troubleshoot a faulty system.
Costs and Purchasing Panels
Solar panels in the United States or in Nicaragua are still solar panels and thus still cost about the same. It is possible to get "blemished" panels - meaning that they are less than perfect (sometimes a few scratches on the frame, and sometimes more), which are a few hundred dollars off, but still not cheap. A major problem (and cost) for solar panels in developing countries is importing the panels and the fees and taxes that you have to pay to customs to get the panels. It can add a couple hundred to several thousand dollars by the time you add on shipping and tax fees. While customers in the states are concerned with getting the cheapest price on their solar panels, the margins are even tighter in developing nations where homeowners are just working to purchase one panel for their home.
Perceptions of Solar Electricity
Aside from solar on homes for electricity, solar has many applications to improve the lives of individuals and communities. It can also be used to provide reliable access to clean drinking water. In areas where residents would typically have to hike several miles to get drinking water, this now means that they have water pumped directly to their home, or at least to a central location in town. Not having to spend several hours a day collecting water (and carrying those 40 pound containers on their heads) frees up the women to spend more time with the children, or doing other projects or even just having a moment to rest each day. We talked to several communities, all of which said that having solar in the area has drastically improved their lives - allowing them to have modern appliances, giving them more time with their family, just making life easier in general.
Speaking with one renewable energy company in Nicaragua, they said that the citizens definitely know what solar is and it's becoming more popular, particularly in the rural areas. As oil and gas prices continue to rise, and as power lines still have yet to make it very far outside of city limits, homeowners realize that if they can get funds together, they control their own power. Micro-financing is one popular way to pay for solar panels. As homeowners typically need just one panel (or a couple), a few years of paying a little bit each month, with no interest on the loan, and the panel is paid off.
Image: Solar battery bank for 8-panel system on roof.
Here in the states, a typical home might have between 30-40 panels (at anywhere between 170-200 watts per panel). In Nicaragua, a typical home would have one panel on it, at a much lower wattage. The only larger arrays we saw were projects where companies installed "solar arrays" for the community with, for example, 26 solar panels for 26 homes. If community members stopped paying their monthly bill (typically a few dollars) then the power was cut off to that home after repeated delinquency. A similar "payment" situation was used in a community with a solar array for water pumping. The water was designed to be delivered directly to each house in the community and members that did not pay their bill found they were without water. The community leader in charge said that happened a few times in the beginning and now that residents know the rules are serious, everyone pays their bill.
Views on Solar
The attitudes in the United States towards solar versus those in Nicaragua are vastly different. Here in the United States they are a luxury item, still considered too expensive and homeowners install them in order to "screw the utility" and be free of the man (even though 9 times out of 10 they are still connected to the grid and still get a utility bill of some form or another). In Nicaragua, solar panels are highly prized and often the only way for many homes to get power for a few lightbulbs and an outlet or two, which is used for appliances and cell phone chargers.
When we installed the system on the school, the entire village came out and physically helped with every aspect of the installation. For a household that formerly went to bed when the sun went down, having their own source of power means being able to stay up later to work or study or whatever needs to be done. It also means the ability to have a refrigerator and other appliances (television). For as much as we may wax on about all of the mindless garbage found on american boobtubes, having television means having access to outside ideas and information. Having a refrigerator means the ability to keep more food in the house and a more varied diet (more vitamins in their diet).
One solar water pumping project used the panels to pump water out of a very deep well. Meaning that residents no longer had to hike miles for water, but also meaning that agriculture is now a viable option for the community. The panels pump water up and into a storage tank (think rainbarrel), and from here the system uses gravity to "carry" water downhill to the new garden. Tomatoes, melons, strawberries and other vegetables are all growing in the garden - so much so that the main farmer is able to send boxes of food to his daughter in the city to supplement her diet and that of her new baby. The community also now has access to vegetables and all of the vitamins and other benefits they include, instead of just eating rice, beans and corn (depending on what they have the money to grow).
Solar is such a great idea for any community - developed or developing - and it was just really exilerating to see that solar gives communities not just one step up, but exponential steps up. Providing electricity, as we saw time and again, gives not only lights, but it gives access to information, and access to better food and access to water. It makes available basic necessities so communities can work on more important things, like spending times with families and building up their communities. :Power to the People
More on Solar in Developing Countries
Dell Funds Solar and Schools in Brazil, India and Mexico
New Solar Panels Produced at Less than $1 a Watt
So Why Aren't We Tapping Into North Africa's Vast Solar Power Potential?
Seeing the Future Reflected in a Solar Stove