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Summer 2012 Blog - Jonathan Lee

Jonathan Lee is spending ten weeks at the Nicaraguan energy company blueEnergy.

June 29, 2012

jonathan_carryCarrying the materials out to Kahka Creek

Since my last post, my role at blueEnergy has changed a little bit. My supervisor asked me to take a look at the database we use to keep track of all of the energy systems that were installed. It consists of a series of Excel spreadsheets and everyone agreed it needed to be improved. After looking at it for a while, I decided that the information they were trying to track was not well suited for Excel, so I took it upon myself to learn how to use Microsoft Access and rebuild the database and a user interface for entering data and preventing bad data from being inserted. It’s been an interesting reminder of how important computers are to almost everything these days. As soon as I revealed that I had worked as a software developer my biggest project became this database. I have a sneaky suspicion that my computer science education is going to continue to be valuable.

jonathan_junction_boxWorking on the mother of all junction boxes. I was holding my breath when we tried turning on the lights and fans because there were about 20 wires going in and out of that box.

Apart from the database, I spent four days on a maintenance trip at the jungle reserve of Kahka Creek up North. It was about a two-hour boat ride and then a very muddy forty five minute walk. We used horses to and mules to bring all the equipment out there. The original installation was a very small grid to power a house, a workshop, and multi-use center for this reserve. A few people live there full time, and they use the area to teach classes on ecology and forestry in partnership with a nearby agroforestry school. After blueEnergy had installed the solar panels and batteries and such, the people who manage the reserve had done some basic wiring for lights and such inside the house. The purpose of our trip was to essentially redo all of the wiring and add some more lights and outlets. It was a much more interesting and complicated wiring job than the tiny house I did a few weeks ago. Now I know how to wire a house and set up all of the circuit breakers everything!

The other project I have been working on has been planning a class on how to do solar panel installations and how to maintain systems. The plan is to go to the community of Rocky Point this Thursday and teach the class. We are particularly excited about this because a Peace Corps project recently got approved and funding to install solar systems in 20 homes. The installations will be done by blueEnergy around August, so we hope to have some trained technicians in the community to maintain their systems. If this education program is successful and repeated, it could improve the longevity and reliability of the electrical systems, as well as free up the resources blueEnergy spends on maintenance trips. It could allow people to do their own installations if they can find the funding as well.


June 3, 2012

jonathon_tysonA blueEnergy employee Chris and I show one of the young beneficiaries of the project, Tyson, how to secure the solar panels to the mounting pole.

Welcome to my first blog entry of summer 2012! First of all, I would like to thank Cal Energy Corps and blueEnergy for giving me this amazing opportunity to work in Nicaragua. I am only two weeks in, and I have already learned so much and had many unique experiences.

My project this summer is to work with blueEnergy, an NGO that does mainly water sanitation and renewable energy projects in the rural communities on the impoverished Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. I am working with their solar team to help conduct analysis on future projects, do solar installations, and find ways to improve the installation process.

My main focus for the first two weeks has been planning for an installation that should take place at the end of June. The beneficiary of the project is a school on Rama Cay, an island close to Bluefields, which is blueEnergy’s main location in Nicaragua. My first task was to develop a set of potential systems that we could install. This entails modeling the performance of different systems (different numbers of panels, batteries, etc.) based on the solar resources for the area and the anticipated electricity demand of the school. One of the difficulties is modeling the demand, because there is currently no electricity there, so we have to estimate the demand, which can be very difficult because the community members can only tell us what they think they might use. Because of this, part of the analysis requires modeling different demand scenarios and seeing how flexible each potential system would be in meeting that demand. After developing these scenarios, my next task was to determine the best and most reliable system based on our fixed budget for the project. Having an idea of this, my focus at the beginning of next week will be to develop a detailed list of supplies and budget to submit as a purchase order (down to how many meters of wire and the number of screws) so that we can actually do the installation and make sure it is within our budget!

jonathan_finished systemThe finished solar system at the farm in Rocky Point.

While doing this, I also did a small 70 W installation for a family with one of the other blueEnergy employees and a short term volunteer. We built the supporting frame for the solar panels in the shop here in Bluefields, then took a 45-minute panga (boat) ride and a 45-minute bus ride to get out to this farmhouse in Rocky Point where a family with eight kids lives in a two room house. We put up the panel and wired up their lights, battery, and an inverter so that they can run a radio or charge a cell phone. It was an overnight trip, so we got to sleep in hammocks at the house of one of the community leaders of Rocky Point. I was pleasantly surprised to see how organized the community was, and how they made a collective decision to help this family pay for the system, because they are one of the poorest in the community and have a lot of kids (one of the main purposes of the lights is to allow the children to study at night because it is near dark by the time they finish the walk home from school). This particular community has shown a lot of interest in learning how to install and maintain solar systems, so I plan to go back there in a couple weeks and teach a two-day class on how the systems work, how to correctly install and wire them, and how to do maintenance so that the community becomes less reliant on blueEnergy.

Overall, I have really enjoyed getting the practical experience of actually building and installing solar systems, and I am looking forward to doing a larger system on Rama Cay. The experience of planning and budgeting a project has also been very valuable and interesting, and I feel like the entire experience is complementing the more theoretical education I have received at Berkeley very well. On top of all of that, it has been a fantastic cultural experience living in Bluefields and learning about how they use energy here, what energy development means to the communities, and what kind of impact energy development can have on their lives.

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