Friday, January 21, 2011

Hola from Nicaragua!

Volcan Cerro Negro on the way to the Solar Center in Totogalpa
Hello everyone!

Talking details.

The UC Davis D-Lab group just returned from a few weeks in the field in Nicaragua where we built a solar fruit dryer for drying and preserving fruits.
We were working with Grupo Fenix ( and the women's cooperative called the Solar Women of Totogalpa ( in a beautiful, mountainous area of north central Nicaragua. 

Our UC Davis D-Lab team consisted of UC Davis Environmental Engineering student, Blake Ringeisen; UC Berkeley PhD candidate student, Jessica Vechakul; D-Lab Director, Kurt Kornbluth; and D-Lab Program Manager, Gwynn Benner.

Collaborating on goals for design.

The local building team consisted of Nimia, Yelba, Rumalda, and Alejandra with additional hands-on support by Mauro Corralez and Jorge.

Construction underway!
The project was a huge success.


In addition to building the solar drying with the building team, D-Lab also established some great relationships with the PV group (Mauro and Mauro C.) as well as students and faculty from the Alternative Energy Program at Nicaragua's National Engineering University.

The finished dryer.
 We met with the directors of SolSimple, a new and innovative company exporting TASTY organic dried fruits to the U.S. (see them on Facebook and in stores now!).

And also met with other groups interested in renewable energy alternatives. We had an amazing detailed presentation by Alberto Navarro, a representative from the national utility, who gave an excellent overview of Nicaragua's current grid challenges and future planned growth in the next five years. 
Here's a close up of the trim details of the
finished dryer. Air vents help regulate heat and humidity. 

Tim O'Hare was gracious enough to give us some of his time when we visited him at the Embassy's USAID office as well. 

We hope to send another team of students to continue our work on the solar dryer with the Solar Women and Grupo Fenix early this coming summer.

Stay tuned for more updates in the future.

Tomatoes drying. Tomotoes are in
abundance during harvest and
loss is high when they are in season.

The local team explain to the D-Lab
team the workings of their indirect solar
dryer used to dry herbs.

Grupo Fenix co-founder and director of alternative energy at the National
Engineering University in Managua in front of the Solar Center

Monday, January 17, 2011

Saludos desde Guatemala! (Greetings from Guatemala!)

I’m here on a D-Lab travel grant in the Western Highlands city of Quetzaltenango, more commonly known by its K'iche Maya nickname of Xela, to work with Alterna, a local NGO. Formerly a part of the Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group, Alterna seeks to incubate Guatemalan businesses focused on sustainable energy technologies, including methane gas-generating biodigesters (fed with animal manure, kitchen scraps, and other organic wastes), micro-hydroelectric systems, and fuel-efficient stoves (featuring an innovative “Avon cosmetics”-style model of woman-to-woman entrepreneurship and marketing). I’m here to work on a pilot study of a new type of biodigester in La Felicidad, a community of about 2,500 families located two hours southwest of Xela in the warm, humid coastal region. 

The idea—an ambitious one—is to explore the potential for a business that would sell the most efficient, most cost-effective, most user-friendly, and most desirable biodigesters in Latin America. This pilot study will look at the “learning curve” experienced by families using the biodigesters, their satisfaction with the technology and the cooking gas and organic fertilizer it produces, and how the new energy systems fit into and impact multiple dimensions of the users’ lives (including their household economies, farms, animals, health, and labor, among other things). I’ll be working with Alterna to get a baseline snapshot of these aspects of the families, while also helping to develop tools for learning about their experience throughout the pilot.

An older, clunkier, more expensive biodigester model

The community of La Felicidad was chosen for four primary reasons: 1) The warm and fairly consistent climate helps provide good conditions for the methane-generating bacteria driving biodigestion; 2) Many families own pigs and/or cows, whose manure will feed the biodigester; 3) Almost every family in the community regularly buys firewood (meaning both that they use wood to fuel their cooking—the negative economic, health and environmental impacts of which are well documented—and that despite being largely subsistence farmers they have sufficient income from some source to buy, rather than gather, the wood); and perhaps most importantly, as we learn in D-Lab, 4) The community leader expressed a strong desire for the biodigesters to be installed in La Felicidad, and is willing to do what it takes to make that happen. His endorsement of and involvement in the project have been invaluable, and as of now, five families have been selected to have the biodigesters installed.

To duplicate as closely as possible what customers of the proposed business would experience, the pilot will emphasize two key conditions. First, families will pay for their biodigesters (a subsidized price of 1,500 Quetzales, or just under $200; though this seems expensive, it’s almost half of what other similar biodigesters cost, and about two-thirds of what customers will likely pay after the pilot). Second, besides an initial hands-on training, families will get little ongoing help with maintaining their biodigesters. With the tagline “It’s alive!!,” the training will introduce the biodigester as a new family member, possessing a living digestive system that needs to be regularly fed and cared for. The idea is to de-mystify the construction and maintenance of the biodigesters and directly engage the families in the process, in contrast with the way that some NGOs in developing countries truck in odd-looking gadgets and assemble “appropriate technology” contraptions in the backyards of the bemused intended users. On Wednesday, we will visit La Felicidad to meet with the families, collect baseline information, and prepare them for the fact that at the time of training and installment next week, they will need to have ready some of the 25 5-gallon buckets (!!) of organic waste and 25 5-gallon buckets of water that will be used to get each biodigester going (after this initial start-up amount, the biodigester will be fed much less each day).

As a start, today José and Daniel introduced me to Alterna’s own biodigester, which is fed eight pounds of organic waste and produces about 250 liters of biogas each day (used for cooking and boiling water around the office). One catch: because this is a technology that will hopefully be marketed by a private company under patent, I unfortunately can’t post full photos of the biodigester model on this blog.

José and Daniel use a simple mill to grind fruit and vegetable scraps from the kitchen of a nearby household to pretreat them for biodigestion

José drains liquid effluent from the biodigester, to be mixed with the ground kitchen waste

The pungent mixture of effluent and kitchen scraps, then poured into the biodigester

A simple frame for a one-burner biogas stove: rebar, flat iron, and steel tubing

The streets of Xela, with mountains in the background

Proud graffiti by a lone teenager who tirelessly covers negative graffiti in Xela with cultural symbols.
The text (also appropriate to alternative energy technologies!) reads: "Don't contaminate, it's better to respect yourself; and if you see someone throwing trash, pick it up and demonstrate for him/her your culture."

More after the community visit!
-Larisa (D-Lab I and II student, Winter and Spring 2010)