Learning about communities on the edge of the world

February 22, 2011

Today we left Managua to go to Bluefields, and meet our partner there, blueEnergy.  It was only a short ride by plane, but the Caribbean coast is almost like another country.  You can’t get there by road – the road stops at a place called Rama, and you’d have to take a river boat from there.  Once you are on the coast the main way of getting between communities is either walking, or by boat.  

blueEnergy was set up in 2003 with a vision to “create opportunities for economic development in harmony with the natural environment” . Its mission is to “improve the lives of marginalized communities through a holistic approach to sustainable energy and related services” – they have a great slogan “Energy for people, energy for enterprise, energy for life!”

Working in this geographically isolated  region presents blueEnergy with many challenges.  While the Pacific Coast population of Nicaragua is quite homogeneous: 96% Mestizo (mixed indigenous and Spanish ancestry), almost 100% Spanish-speaking, and predominantly Roman Catholic, the Caribbean Coast is home to six different ethnic groups, speaking four different languages. So apart from needing to learn several languages, Marie from blueEnergy explained that you have to understand the different mindsets of different communities. For instance the western calendar doesn’t mean much to the people here, so to tell them to do a particular maintenance job on the turbine twice a year means nothing.  So instead Marie learned to plan tasks by season – the mango ripening season or the bean planting season!

Many communities have extremely high illiteracy rates too – its hard to attract teachers to such a remote place and formal education is often short (it may be too far for children to go to the nearest secondary school without staying over, which is too expensive for most families).  So blueEnergy’s training manuals have been redesigned to include pictoral instructions.

There are parallel governments with the semi-autonomous councils, local, regional and territorial as well as federal governments – meaning that it can sometimes be difficult to know who you need to approach to get something approved – and meaning that it can take a long time before the organisation is able to get a new  project off the ground.

And, for an organization which works with renewable energy, it’s a pretty harsh environment.  Pedro, the technical programme co-ordinator explained blueEnergy works with a design originally made by High Piggot – the “granddaddy of small wind turbine design”, but that over the years they have made a number of design changes to suit this particular environment. 

Firstly the high levels of salinity and humidity mean that the metal parts of turbines corrode quickly (in 2-3 years compared to about 15 in the UK). Because of this the blueEnergy team have to paint everything with anti-corrosion paint or “oversize” the wires (so that even with the corrosion, the inside is still the right diameter to have enough strength).  Hugh’s Piggot’s wind turbine “recipe book” (it really is called that!) recommends plywood as a lightweight material for the blades and tail.  In the wet environment, the plywood soon turned to mush and the team had to come up with a new design of locally available wood. Lightning is also a major issue – it is pretty common here and a lightning strike to a turbine can cause $700 worth of damage.  So its worth putting in extra protective copper earthing systems – even though it adds to the price of the system.  With low normal windspeeds but a high likelihood of hurricanes, turbines have to be adjusted to be more efficient at lower windspeeds, but also to cut out at high windspeeds to protect the system from damage. Finally, because the turbines have to be carried on small boats and then by hand up hills to their location, weight is vital.  Hugh Piggot’s design would take 4 people to carry the hub – this would just not be practical, so blueEnergy have designed a lighter version so that it can be carried by just two people.

Phew – a packed day and I’ve learned a lot – can’t wait to get out to the community tomorrow!

Hugh Piggot’s wind turbine recipe book – blueEnergy had to make a few amendments to ensure their turbines were suitable for the hot, humid, saline and stormy conditions of Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast.