New Ideas to Sustain Renewable Energies in Central America

Twenty-six projects have won funding of up to $200,000 each to develop their concepts in the 2009 IDEAS Energy Challenge. Jointly sponsored by Global Village Energy Partnership International, GTZ, IDB and the Government of Korea, the competition supports project ideas which demonstrate an innovative response to tackling the energy challenges facing Latin America and the Caribbean today.

GVEP International highlights three cases where the scheme is expected to facilitate considerable growth in the renewable energy framework of impoverished regions of Central America.

Amid the valleys, mountains and volcanoes of the highlands of southern Guatemala lies one of the country’s largest lakes, Lake Amatitlan. Located just 16 kilometers south of Guatemala City, the unique landscape surrounding the lake means it is used by many people as a recreation area.

However, the proximity of Lake Amatitlan to the capital means the western basin is contaminated with dissolved waste and fertilizers from the city which are fed into it via the Villalobos river. Fertilisers can cause increases in the level of nutrients in the water resulting in the proliferation of algae which in turn deplete oxygen levels essential to other aquatic organisms.

But algae do have a potentially useful function as a new source of green fuel and one of the winners of the 2009 IDEAS Energy Challenge is already assessing the energy potential of the particular species of micro-algae currently polluting Lake Amatitlan. A team from La Universidad Galileo and Universidad del Valle de Guatemala is researching and developing the processes for filtering micro-algae from the water, extracting their oil and converting the oil into biodiesel.

A laboratory and pilot plant will be established near the lake. Six hundred and fifty-five industries based around Lake Amatitlan and about a million Guatemalans stand to benefit from this new source of green fuel. And then there are the environmental advantages: removing the algae will, of course, clean up the lake. And there are plans to replicate the project in other parts of Guatemala once the methodology has been refined.

As GVEP’s CEO Sarah Adams, explains, “If a successful commercial model can be established this can be replicated to other contaminated lakes and rivers in Latin America which are suffering from the same problem, transforming waste into locally-produced clean energy.”

A local source of biofuel and improved water quality – two benefits for the price of one project!

A second Central American winner in the 2009 IDEAS Energy Challenge is a joint venture between an Honduran renewable energy association, Asociacion Hondureña de Pequeños Productores de Energia (AHPPER) and Energia Para Aldeas (EPA), a subsidiary of US-based development organisation, Village Energy Inc.

Recognising the fact that some rural villages in Honduras are too remote for them to be linked to the national electricity grid but that often just a small-scale pico hydropower plant would give them access to enough electricity to run basic equipment such as lighting and radios, APPHER and EPA aim to make this a reality.

The idea is that local communities will initially be employed to assist in the construction of the plants. After a period of five years, the villagers will partially own the hydroelectric plants and will be in a position to pay themselves an income. Two prototype pico hydro businesses have already been established and it is hoped that this franchise model can eventually be expanded and replicated to create 456 village franchises providing 137,000 people with off-grid electricity. EPA intends to implement the project with APPHER providing legal and environmental advice.

In a similar vein, a third winner, Mily Cortez, Technical Director at the Zamorano Pan-American Agricultural School, aims to reduce poverty in the Yegaure river valley region of mountainous, south-central Honduras with a project helping to build up locally-owned renewable energy systems. The project, based on the principles of education, technology and micro-finance, will involve a team working with about 30 micro enterprises in the area, not only to teach them about the installation, maintenance, social and environmental benefits of renewable energy technology but also about how to build their markets and how to generate micro credit to facilitate growth.

About 1,500 people stand to benefit from the scheme, including five renewable energy equipment companies which will supply materials for the project, such as solar energy systems which will be installed in schools and health centres for demonstration purposes.

It is hoped that successful implementation of the project in the Yegaure will lead to replication elsewhere in the country.

“GVEP International’s role in this has been pivotal not only for the financial and technical support but also because it make us think in an innovative way of a different type of project,” says Mily Cortez to sum up GVEP international’s multi-faceted approach towards poverty alleviation through access to renewable energy.

This article originally appeared at GVEP International.

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