Nonprofit companyÂ’s energy vision lights Nicaraguan villages' future

BLUEFIELDS, NICARAGUA - As dark clouds approached, Guillaume Craig packed up his tools, climbed into a rickety boat and sped off from a small fishing village, hoping to make the three-hour commute downriver before nightfall. The boat wasn't quite fast enough, so the former Oakland resident used a flashlight to guide his way back through endless miles of tropical forest.

"That was actually our easiest site to reach," said Craig, whose San Francisco-based Blue Energy foundation is delivering renewable energy to hundreds of residents along Nicaragua's remote Caribbean coast.

Craig, 31, his brother, Mathias, 33, and a small crew of volunteers have been traversing the muddy backwaters, installing solar panels and windmills for free and bringing renewable energy to villages, schools and health clinics where none existed before.

"It could make a huge difference in rural areas," said Mathias Craig, who says he has always been fascinated with wind power. "You can't even reach a lot of these places with power lines."

The San Francisco nonprofit has attracted the attention of the government of President Daniel Ortega, who has expressed interest in alternative technology to help alleviate the country's energy crunch. Within the next six months, the Craigs say, Blue Energy wind turbines will be tested at a UC Berkeley field station in Richmond. If they pass international standards, the Ortega government will consider using them countrywide.

Since June, many regions across the nation have experienced four- to eight-hour-a-day blackouts, prompting even Pacific Coast resort developers to knock on Blue Energy's doors. For now, the brothers say, the tourist areas will have to take a backseat to underserved rural communities. "We are a nonprofit," said Guillaume Craig.

Nearly 80 percent of Nicaragua's electricity is powered by oil. In July, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez financed the construction of a 150,000-barrel-a-day, $2.5 billion refinery - the largest in Central America - as part of his oil-funded battle against U.S. influence in Latin America. Chavez has also sent generators to help offset the rolling blackouts.

Mathias Craig, who studied civil engineering at UC Berkeley, says Blue Energy began as a graduate project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before being incorporated in 2003. The next year, the Craigs arrived in Nicaragua - the only country where they are currently operating - at the behest of their mother. Colette Grinevald is a linguistics professor who specializes in indigenous languages along the Caribbean coast.

Blue Energy works mainly with Rama and Miskito Indians, who form part of an autonomous zone of 650,000 inhabitants with greater independence from the national government than the rest of the country. Since it began operations in Nicaragua, Blue Energy has provided electricity to five villages and 1,400 residents. To date, the foundation's most remote site is Punta de Aguila, a five-and-a-half-hour trip south of Bluefields over choppy waters.

While Hurricane Dean nearly destroyed several turbines earlier in the summer, this month's Hurricane Felix missed Blue Energy's area of operation.

The Craigs are convinced that wind and solar power are the most practical ways to bring energy to isolated indigenous villages far removed from any power grid. Currently, the only option for most coastal dwellers is diesel-powered generators.

"Our community has always lived in darkness," said Edgar Swartz, 32, standing in the shadow of an 80-foot Blue Energy wind turbine that powers the village of Kakabila, home to 700 people. "We think plenty about electricity."

Separated by geography and culture, the region is among the poorest in a nation that has the dubious distinction of being the second poorest in the Western Hemisphere, with Haiti being the poorest. On the Caribbean coast, basic health services are spotty, illiteracy is 65 percent in rural areas, and an estimated 80 percent go without regular electricity.

Blue Energy operates on an annual shoestring budget of about $120,000 in grants from the government of Finland and contributions from mainly American and French donors. The Craigs hope to eventually turn a profit that will sustain their nonprofit work.

The foundation currently churns out one new wind turbine a week from the rustic port town of Bluefields, the region's largest city with 50,000 people. Following a common design to harness wind power, the turbines are hand built and shipped in pieces in 15-foot wooden boats with outboard motors.

Blue Energy also buys solar panels from local distributors to keep communities powered during hot, non-windy days. The full wind and solar package costs $12,000 for 1 kilowatt of power. In contrast, a small diesel generator costs about $500 and is typically affordable only for those operating local businesses.

The foundation pays for installation for entire communities, but those who want power for private use, such as charging cell phones and hooking up television sets, must purchase a special $300 battery and pay roughly $4 a month for recharging fees.

Though more expensive than generators, alternative energy will pay for itself in the long run, the brothers argue. Using nothing but wind and sun, the Blue Energy installation pumps out roughly 3,500 watt-hours of electricity each day - enough to power five homes using a small radio and refrigerator over a 24-hour period.

The Craigs estimate that it takes three windmills to sufficiently power small communities of up to 700 people with basic energy needs. They hope alternative energy will allow these villages to open night schools and improve refrigeration for the main industry along the coast - seafood.

Mathias Craig, however, said his heart sank when he saw the first installation three years ago in Punta de Aguila being used to power television sets tuned to Spanish-language soap operas.

"We don't promote using television," he said. "But they get to pick."

In the meantime, the Craigs hope to train Nicaraguans in solar and wind power that will one day rival the nation's largest privately owned electrical companies.

That makes perfect sense to Poochy Newton, 48, a Miskito fisherman who is selling his diesel generator to become the first nonbusiness user of alternative energy in Set Net Point, a four-hour boat ride north of Bluefields. Newton calculates that he will save about $30 a month by not using diesel fuel, which is shipped in, for his generator.

"Diesel is very expensive," Newton said. "The wind is going to work out much better."


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