I first set foot in Bluefields in December 2005, beginning my ongoing collaborations with blueEnergy as a volunteer, researcher, and advisor. On that first trip I arrived with a technical bent, spending the better part of six months working to implement a system for testing and measuring the output of blueEnergy’s turbines – a critical aspect needed for turbine design and quality assurance. Since that trip, I have been making annual migrations down to Bluefields, focusing on a broad range of topics from the construction of fiberglass blades to understanding the value chain of coconuts. When not physically in Bluefields, I am usually thinking about the ongoing work and complex coastal history of Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast, pursuing a doctoral degree in Energy and Resources at UC Berkeley.
Over the past 5 years, my interests have co-evolved with blueEnergy’s experiences, focusing on both the technical and social aspects of rural energy systems and development. Interested in the linkages between electricity and economic development, I have spent time visiting villages that have their own electricity distribution grids, often utilizing diesel generation. Without any national oil production capacity, all diesel fuel is imported, and these systems often require hefty subsidies, on the order of 75%. In 2008-09, I worked with blueEnergy, the UNDP, and various government agencies to develop a three-year project focused on the delivery of energy services to a number of villages situated around Pearl Lagoon, north of Bluefields.
Before political disagreements among the various collaborating entities sunk the project, we were able to implement an effective energy efficiency campaign in two villages that receive power from an isolated diesel generation system. By offering community members the opportunity to replace two incandescent light bulbs with 75% more efficient compact fluorescent lights, we were able to drastically reduce diesel consumption. The diesel savings from the lighting campaign, concurrent with meter installations carried out by the government, translated into increased operation hours for the grid, decreased expenditures for many community members, and a reduction in carbon dioxide savings – thus providing an example that addressing poverty, climate change, and increased energy access can all be complementary. A more detailed examination of this project and its implications was recently published in the journal Science (the article can be accessed by following the link at the bottom of this page: http://rael.berkeley.edu/node/643).
While the availability of energy services is important, increased access must complement a suite of development priorities, which will vary by community. I have recently begun to investigate the value chains of fishing and various agricultural products, such as coconut and cacao, seeking to understand how rural producers can capture a greater portion of the final price of these products. Producers often lack information on prices and market networks, often under-pricing their goods. I hope to work with blueEnergy’s community team to explore various methods of facilitating increased information access for rural producers. Mathias Craig and I have also recently begun collaborating with UC Davis, supporting a student group that will investigate the economic and technical potential of agricultural crop residue for the production of biogas.
It has been a pleasure working with blueEnergy, trying to understand how projects can best complement the skills, initiatives, and priorities of coastal communities. We have come far, but development is a never-ending process. There are many interesting lessons ahead.