Clayton Ernst spent the summer with blueEnergy in Nicaragua.

July 1, 2011

Building a solar food dryer

It has been more than one month now since my arrival in balmy Bluefields, a city of about 50,000 on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. My experience so far has been rich and eye-opening, with every day bringing new surprises, challenges, and lessons to be learned. I’ve been keeping busy with work, and time seems to be flying by.

The organization I am working with is blueEnergy, an international nonprofit with offices in San Francisco, France, and Nicaragua. So far, blueEnergy’s work has been focused on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. Their mission is to “improve lives in marginalized communities using a holistic approach to sustainable energy and related fundamental services.” This is a broad goal, and accordingly the ways in which blueEnergy pursues their mission are diverse. Some of their main projects include: installation of hybrid wind/solar systems in isolated communities, water quality improvements such as biosand filters and assistance with well drilling, efficient cookstove distribution, and community education about health and energy issues.

My work at blueEnergy is laying the groundwork for a new area of community engagement: solar food drying & preservation. The technology is nothing new, with the basic idea being to use energy from the sun to heat and dry food, hence making preservation of many foods possible in the absence of modern refrigeration. My task is to design, construct, and test a solar dryer for future implementation in a blueEnergy community. As of now the design and construction phases are complete, with the testing phase currently ongoing. May through October is the rainy season in Nicaragua – making solar drying difficult at times – but we’re taking full advantage of the sun when it does come out. So far we’ve dried bananas, mangos, pineapples, cacao seeds, basil, and lemongrass tea. A major goal is to be able to dry shrimp, since this is a major commercial product here on the Caribbean coast. Eventually, with funding from the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), blueEnergy will implement large-scale solar dryers in communities, hopefully creating jobs and income. My work this summer is blueEnergy’s first step down what will surely be a long and fruitful path.

One of our fruit dryers in action

Working with blueEnergy is exciting for me because the work we are doing directly improves the quality of life for people in local communities. It also allows these communities to grow using renewable energy sources, which is good for the Earth both at regional and global levels. Unique to blueEnergy is their community-based approach – all projects undertaken by blueEnergy are in response to community-expressed needs, and community involvement is crucial in every step of planning, construction, and maintenance. Effort is made to educate communities about issues of energy and technology, empowering them to take sustainable energy development into their own hands. Furthermore, blueEnergy develops long-term relationships with the communities they serve, ensuring that each project has the desired impact over long time scales.

The work environment here is certainly a contrast to what I’m used to. Aside from the heat, humidity, and insects native to the Caribbean coast, limited access to resources and the relative isolation of Bluefields has made otherwise simple tasks such as obtaining reliable measurement instruments or certain construction materials a challenge. A lot ofparts required to make wind turbines, and even some required by solar dryers, need to be shipped in from the capital city of Managua, which is not so simple given that there is no road leading to Bluefields (air or boat transport is required). The process of completing an order, from proposal to delivery, often can take much longer than ideal for an efficient workflow. Despite these sub-optimal conditions, blueEnegy achieves a lot, thanks mainly to the tireless persistence and vision of the bE staff. This may be the most valuable part of my experience – working with people from around the world who are passionate about solving global problems and helping others. Our interactions leave me inspired and hopeful, ready to tackle problems of climate change, energy supply, sanitation, and poverty.

At the beach in Bluefields

My experience in Nicaragua has given meaning to the idea that less-developed nations will meet significant challenges in adapting to climate change. Having witnessed the lack of resources and infrastructure common to a developing nation, it is clear to me that both technical and social assistance is needed. blueEnergy is providing this assistance, and at the same time is helping the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua move towards a renewable energy system necessary for the post-fossil fuel era. With some work, solutions to these ubiquitous problems can be realized.