What does GRID Alternatives' International Program (formerly Power to the People) do?
GRID Alternatives' International Program (formerly Power to the People) works with volunteers to install off-grid photovoltaic systems on rural schools, health clinics, houses and farms in Nicaragua.
Which part of Nicaragua do you work in?
We have installed solar systems in the departments of Boaco, Matagalpa, Granada, Rivas, Esteli, Rio San Juan, and Jinotega. We cluster solar projects in the same general area so maintenance and site visits are easier.
How do you select your projects?
Our projects come to us from direct requests from a community, or requests or recommendations from Peace Corps volunteers, other non-profit organizations, and local government agencies. Our staff visit the sites, meet with the communities, look at the structure of the building, and choose the best sites possible.
Selection criteria include:
- Level of need (How far away is the community from the electric grid?)
- Building location (Is there shade? Is the roof suitable for solar?)
- Community involvement (Is the community organized, dependable and responsible?)
- Building ownership (Is the building and land owner on board with the installation of solar panels on the roof?)
- Available funds (Do we have the funds to install a system at the time of the request?)
- Location (Is the community accessible enough and in an area we are working in?)
- Maintenance (Will we be able to help the community maintain the system for years to come?)
Communities must demonstrate the desire and need for electricity.
What is the community’s role in the project?
Before their installation, a community requests the project directly or through a partner organization, forms an energy committee of local volunteers to oversee the project, and guarantees approval from the building owner or local officials. The community meets with GRID Alternatives prior to the installation, attends trainings, and prepares the site for volunteers.
The community helps install the solar system, provides housing and food to the volunteers, and organizes a celebration on the last day of the project. Our sustainable model ensures that the community is fully capable of maintaining their system after installation.
What is GRID Alternatives’ role in the project?
GRID selects the site, raises funds for the project, designs a custom solar system and acquires the necessary materials, recruits volunteers for the installation, and leads the volunteer trip. We train the community before, during, and after the installation, monitor the community’s use of the system over time, and stay in touch to ensure the system is working properly. When appropriate, we offer the community our Solar Lighting Program.
What type of training do you provide?
Before, during, and after the installation we provide interactive trainings about solar energy, system maintenance, and fiscal responsibility. Before we arrive with the solar equipment, we meet with the community and talk to them about solar energy. We encourage them to think of ways having electricity can improve their lives, their schools, libraries, and health care centers. We set expectations for the week of the solar installation.
During the installation, we teach the community members what appliances should and should not be used with the solar system, how to monitor the system’s performance, how to maintain the batteries and the solar panels, and what to do if something goes wrong. We work with the local energy committee to devise a system for collecting funds for cell phone and car battery charging that they can then use to maintain the system.
Does the International Program create job opportunities in Nicaragua?
GRID has an office in Masaya, Nicaragua with a full-time staff comprised of Nicaraguan citizens and residents. We also offer an internships to Nicaraguans whohave studied renewable energy andwould like more hands-on experience. During all of our public solar installations, we offer a volunteer opportunities to Nicaraguans. This hands-on experience helps build knowledge, interest and resumes which can help people qualify for jobs in the local solar industry.
How does the International Program support women’s empowerment?
GRID Alternatives invites women in the communities to we work in to participate in the Solar Lighting Program as small-scale salespeople. Every year, we have an all-Nicaraguan-women solar installation, and on our public trips, we offer at least one Nicaraguan woman the chance to join the volunteer group during the solar installation. This is a unique opportunity for women interested in, or already working in, the renewable energy industry to gain more hands-on solar installation experience. We also require the volunteer Energy Committees that each community forms to support to project to include women, and we encourage local women to participate in the solar installations in their community. Additionally, the solar home systems we install directly benefit women by providing high-quality reliable lighting and power, providing more opportunities for families and a safer and more comfortable living environment.
Is there any income generation from the system?
Many communities require a nominal fee for community members to charge their cell phones and car batteries. These funds are managed by the local volunteer Energy Committee and are used to purchase distilled water for the batteries and replacement light bulbs. Some communities have decided to use the funds to offer micro-loans to community members. The community sets the fee and decides how to manage the funds.. Some families that received solar home systems have started small businesses, like electric hair cutting, making and selling pastries, or cell phone charging, which gives the family income. The solar-powered drip irrigation systems help farmers grow more crops which increases their income.
Do you provide communities with computers or Internet access?
We do not provide communities with computers, but by bringing reliable electricity to rural areas, we are paving the way for the use of computers and other technologies. For example, in one community on the Island of Ometepe in Nicaragua, the presence of electricity at the elementary school allowed the community to qualify for the One Laptop per Child program. Now, each student has his/her own laptop to take home at night and use in class each day. In another community on the Island of Zapatera, electricity at the school allowed non-profit Children’s Wellness Fund to donate desktop computers and Internet to the school. In some communities we do install cell repeaters, allowing people to access the internet through their cell phones.
What is the typical system size for your projects?
The typical system size is about 1,000 Watts DC for a school, 500W DC for a health clinic, or a farm, and 250W for a house. The school, health clinic and home systems are battery-based off-grid PV systems with an inverter to give the building AC power. We also install the full AC side of the system since most buildings we work with have never had electricity before. Our drip irrigation systems range in size from 500w to 1000w and are DC-direct systems that use solar panels to power a DC water pump.
Where do you get your solar equipment?
Much of our solar equipment is donated by generous companies in the solar industry that support our work. The rest is purchased at a discounted rate from manufacturers or distributors. When possible, we purchase items for our international projects from a local solar company in Nicaragua.
Who maintains the system and what does this involve?
The community is responsible for the daily maintaining of the system. This involves adding distilled water to the deep-cycle batteries and cleaning the components and solar panels from time to time. If there is a problem with the system that the community cannot solve, they can contact us or the local solar company that was hired to install the system. GRID staff visit each community at least twice a year to perform regular check-ups and more rigorous system maintenance.
How long do the batteries last?
The life of the batteries depends primarily on 1) the type of batteries used 2) how often and how much they are charged and discharged 3) how well they are maintained and 4) the climate. All of our current projects use Trojan deep-cycle flooded lead-acid batteries, which can last 5-10 years.
Do you work with other renewable energy sources (biogas, hydro, wind, geothermal, etc.)?
At this time we only install photovoltaic modules (solar panels). We do not install solar thermal panels or install systems that generate electricity from other renewable energy sources.
How long do solar panels last?
Mono- and poly-crystalline solar modules have a manufacturer’s warranty of 25 years, which means they were made to last much longer. There are solar modules that have been producing electricity for more than 50 years.
Where does your funding come from?
Our funding comes from individual donations, community fundraising events, corporate sponsorships, foundations and government grants, and trip volunteer fees.
Is GRID Alternatives affiliated with any religious or political beliefs?
No, our work is non-secular and apolitical. We choose our communities by need and do not attempt to influence a community’s religious or political beliefs in any way.
How can I volunteer and be more involved?
Travel with us to Nicaragua to install a solar system!
Your donation to GRID Alternatives' International Program helps us keep our project costs low so we can bring electricity to more communities. Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.