Category Archives: solar energy

Access to Clean Energy: From Pilot Project to Sustainable Enterprise

man_and_baby_Sun_King_Pro_solar_light_000

In 2011, armed with a grant awarded under the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA), nonprofit organization Trees, Water & People launched an initiative to increase the use of clean technologies in several Latin American countries. That pilot project has since spawned a social enterprise that is making solar lighting products accessible to customers in rural areas of Central America.

It all began with a three-year, $1.2 million ECPA grant awarded by the U.S. State Department to Colorado-based Trees, Water & People (TWP) for an initiative called “Improving Access to Clean Energy in Latin America.” The goal was to develop effective ways to reach off-grid markets with climate-friendly products such as clean cookstoves, solar lanterns, and small solar home systems.

While such products provide tangible benefits—cleaner indoor air, reduced expenditures on conventional energy, and higher-quality lighting and cooking—a major challenge is how to create a sustainable supply chain to reach markets with the greatest need. Last-mile distribution is complex, unpredictable, and expensive. Roads are sometimes impassable, mobile communications are often unreliable, and many rural households have no access to financing.

TWP worked hand in hand with a social enterprise called PowerMundo—which had tackled some of these problems in Peru—and with partners in Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador to develop a sustainable commercial model for hard-to-reach areas in Central America.

After trying several different approaches, TWP found that existing rural institutions such as agricultural cooperatives, nongovernmental organizations, and rural savings and loans groups could be effective distributors and retailers of the clean-technology products. Since such groups often already have a credit relationship with small-scale farmers for agricultural investments, they can provide these same farmers with the payment terms they need to invest in products that have a true impact on their lives.

solar light Honduras

Last year, TWP took a step toward making the initiative sustainable by establishing a social enterprise called Luciérnaga LLC (the name means “firefly”) to serve Central America with solar lighting products. “We wanted to create a vehicle through which the project could continue to grow,” explained TWP International Director Sebastián Africano.

Luciérnaga fills a business niche by providing a link between manufacturers and small local distributors. It imports solar lighting products in bulk to a central location in El Salvador, handling logistical details and ordering in large enough quantities to keep the price per unit low. The items can then be distributed over land to partners and clients throughout the region, in Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala. Any profits would be reinvested in the company.

The growth of this business model and the birth of Luciérnaga as an independent company with an international presence show how short-term grant funding can be leveraged toward longer-term sustainable development objectives, according to Africano.

Today, TWP is working to standardize its methods in each country and implement a mobile phone-based monitoring system where distributors can keep track of their sales, collections, and warranty processes through a common online database. The goal is to keep costs low and provide a new source of income for rural individuals and institutions while potentially reaching millions of households in Central America that don’t have access to electricity.

Since launching this program, Luciérnaga and PowerMundo have sold close to 10,000 solar lighting products through their networks, providing illumination, device-charging capabilities, healthier households, and over $200 in cash savings per year, per product, to more than 50,000 people in Latin America.

This post was originally published by the Energy and Climate Partnership of Americas. To view the original blog post click here.

Project Update: Lighting homes in rural Honduras

solar light Honduras

Nearly 50% of the 600 solar household lighting systems we sent to Honduras have been installed. We’re providing 1,200 new LED light points, 600 USB charging ports for cell phones and other small devices, and a new level of dignity for rural families that have lived their entire nocturnal lives by the light of candles, low quality flashlights, and contaminating kerosene lamps. Donors to our Catapult project helped to fund 125 of the lights in this shipment, allowing us to reach many more families in need of clean energy solutions for their homes.

Get personal

solar light Honduras

Miriam Leonel Bonilla

“Many of our customers used to use ocote (a local pine that is used as a candle), and the smoke really bothered them. Or else they would buy candles and flashlights, and that was really expensive. They are very happy with their plantitas – solar lights!” -Miriam Leonel Bonilla, solar light user and distributor, Las Marías, Honduras

Risks and challenges

Honduras is one of the most dangerous countries in the world, and our vendors and promoters live with risk every day. We are lucky to have a dedicated team of people across the country that see the opportunities that exist in solar energy. They believe that the benefits that solar energy brings to their families and communities who buy the systems outweigh the challenges in getting them into the field.

What we’ve learned

solar light HondurasThis order of Barefoot Power solar household systems were our first test of a new international supply chain that has us ordering product in bulk to a central warehouse in El Salvador, from which the products are distributed by land to four different countries. Every step of that process contained a lesson in how to be more efficient in getting these products to the families that need them most. On a macro level, we have learned that we have one of the most innovative approaches to getting products to several Central American countries at once. In Honduras, we have learned that whoever can provide households with the best customer experience will be the one to succeed in expanding the great opportunities in renewable energy for the developing world.

Next steps

Working with social impact technology company Dimagi, we will be piloting a new mobile data collection app called CommSell. This app will allow our field staff to complete surveys on an Android phone, in the field, and automatically populate a database that tells us where our products are, how long they’ve been there, and how much money they are saving users. We can also use this information to conduct follow-up visits and maintenance as needed.

Support TWP When You Go Solar!

solar lighting

Trees, Water & People (TWP) and Benny Mosiman, an Energy Consultant with SolarCity (and a former intern at TWP), have joined forces to help homeowners lower their electricity costs with solar and help fund the Solar Energy and Tribal Renewable Energy Programs here at TWP. When you purchase a solar system through SolarCity and you mention Trees, Water & People as your referral, a $250 donation will be made to help fund our renewable energy programs in Central America and on tribal lands of the U.S.

The choice to get your electricity from the sun will not only benefit the environment and your wallet but will also help families in Central America and on Native American Reservations all across this country get their power from clean, renewable resources.

SolarCity installs solar PV systems with no up-front costs and sells the electricity back to the homeowner at a rate comparable to what you pay for electricity now, often times for a lower cost!  If you would like to set up a free site visit or just want to chat about your options for solar and see if it is a right fit for you please contact Benny at 720-387-5482 or bmosiman@solarcity.com. Don’t forget to mentions Trees, Water & People!

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Notes from the Field: Solar Heating at Sacred Earth Lodge

by Lacey Gaechter, National Director

Sacred Earth Lodge

Mother Nature shows her power in the night sky over Sacred Earth Lodge

After opening it’s doors to the public in late 2013, the Sacred Earth Lodge (SEL) has already hosted several groups and we look forward to hosting many more visitors and Native American trainees in 2014.

Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center

on-site solar and wind demos

This week, we will host our first Solar Hot Water Heater Training at the Sacred Earth Lodge. Once the new hot water system is in place, it will join our growing selection of on-site renewable energy demonstration units. Along with our existing solar air heaters, wind turbines, and grid-tied and battery-tied photovoltaic systems, we will now have a solar hot water system that can be taken apart and reassembled class after class. This equipment gives us the ability to do hands-on training, which is so important to the learning process and what makes our training program unique.

The hot water generated in this solar water system will be mixed with anti-freezing agents and circulated through a radiant heat floor to keep the building warm, using only the sun’s rays!

You can help support this important new clean energy system and contribute to SEL’s low impact, sustainable building design by visiting our fundraising project on Global Giving. Stay tuned for more updates about our Tribal Renewable Energy Program!

Happy National “Shout Out for Solar” Day!

shout out for solar day

 

We are joining people from around the country and the world to celebrate National “Shout Out for Solar” Day!  Will you join us?

The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) writes, “When all of the numbers are finally in, 2013 will go down as a record-shattering year for the U.S. solar industry.  We’ve now joined Germany, China and Japan as worldwide leaders when it comes to the installation of new solar capacity.”

Now that is something to celebrate! You can join in this special day by visiting the SEIA website, downloading one of the #GoSolar signs, and posting to your social networks.

“Today, solar is one of the fastest-growing industries in America, employing 120,000 workers and generating an estimated 13 gigawatts (GW) of clean electricity – enough to effectively power 2 million homes. “

Let the world know that you love solar and support this important industry. Cheers to a clean energy future!

america loves solar

TWP’s Regional Coordinator Graduates from Academia de Profesionales Solares de las Américas

SEI workshop

Benjamin Osorto, TWP’s Regional Coordinator in Central America, recently completed the Academia de Profesionales Solares de las Américas (APSA) program, where he was part of the first graduating class. Congrats Benjamin! 

This innovative program, designed and managed by Solar Energy International with support from the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas, teaches Latin American students how to design, install and maintain solar PV systems and to successfully launch and administer businesses in this critically important industry.

Matthew Harris, Director of Academia de Profesionales Solares de las Américas, wrote, “A new chapter has begun in the Americas and after graduating this first group of people in to the APSA program I am humbled to know that the world is blessed with 50 champions linked by a strong passion to do good for their countries and the world.” 

To learn more about this program please visit the Solar Energy International Website.

SEI APSA

Community Voices: Rodrigo Santos

by Sebastian Africano, International Director

studying by solar light Honduras

Rodrigo Santos studies by the light of a solar lamp at his home in La Paz, Honduras.

Rural Central America has always been a magical escape for me.  You see and experience life at its most basic levels, and while the people are often of little economic means, they are proud, hardworking and tremendously generous.  The air is clean, smiles abound, and everyone is generally busy with something, but will never deny an opportunity to lend you a hand.

On my most recent trip to Honduras, I met Rodrigo Santos, an inspiring young man who reminded me of the importance of education and innovation, no matter where you are in the world.

Rechargeable RadioRodrigo amazed us in the field, as he is a college student that lives in a very rural community with no access to electricity.  He attends university classes 1.5 hours from where he lives. Not only was he one of the first in the area to purchase one of our solar products, but because of his electrical engineering skills and tinkering interests, he has become the go-to solar entrepreneur and maintenance man in his community.

People like Rodrigo make me want to continue working each and every day to bring sustainable energy solutions to Central America, solutions that improve people’s livelihoods and protect the environment.

To learn more about our expanding Solar Energy Program please visit our website.

Rodrigo Santos with his family in La Paz, Honduras.

Rodrigo Santos and his family in La Paz, Honduras.