Mathias Craig has developed a community-based clean energy model that relies on the local manufacture and maintenance of a hybrid wind/solar energy system along the impoverished Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. His organization, blueEnergy, uses a model that emphasizes the long-term accompaniment of rural communities.
The New Idea
As an engineering student, Mathias was fascinated with the potential of renewable energy for developing the world’s poorest regions. In 2003, Mathias co-founded the citizen organization (CO) blueEnergy. blueEnergy implements a reliable clean energy model for poor Nicaraguan communities and puts development in the hands of residents by emphasizing the local manufacture and maintenance of wind/solar energy systems.
After studying failed or underperforming rural electrification projects, Mathias designed blueEnergy to address two major shortcomings among existing programs. First, most electrification programs import foreign-made energy systems to poor communities that lack the ability to maintain these systems, often resulting in the communities abandoning the technology. Instead, blueEnergy develops local capacity to build, operate, and maintain energy systems by manufacturing its turbines in Nicaragua and investing in training local technicians and community operators. Second, many electrification projects install energy systems but do not follow-up with communities over the long-term, which also leads to abandoned technology. Mathias and the blueEnergy team believe long-term support is crucial to the adoption of appropriate technology and have built structured follow-up into their strategy. At its heart, blueEnergy is about sustainable community-owned and managed technologies.
In Nicaragua, half of its 5 million people and 75 percent of the population along the poor Caribbean coast do not have electricity. The absence of electricity stunts economic and social development particularly in rural communities. Electricity is fundamental to the growth of local businesses, the operation of health clinics and schools, and the establishment of communication networks. Communities without electricity find it difficult to attract business investors because they lack infrastructure; they also find it hard to retain qualified health professionals and teachers due to a lack of proper equipment in hospitals and schools. Many of these communities are disconnected from the rest of the world because without electricity, they cannot build phone, radio, or broadband networks. Quite simply, the lack of electricity is one of the most basic obstacles to overcoming poverty in these areas.
Neither the government nor the private sector has the money or the incentive to invest in costly conventional energy distribution systems—for example grid extension and diesel fuel—to give rural homes access to electricity. Isolated populations, challenging geography, lack of infrastructure, and lack of maintenance capacity, all discourage investment in rural electrification, as the possibility of making a profit is very slim.
This situation is by no means unique to Nicaragua. Many COs around the world—sometimes with government support—have tried to fill the vacuum left by the public and private sectors in rural electrification. However, most initiatives have failed to create lasting social impact because they underestimate the challenges of getting rural communities to adopt appropriate technology. Traditional projects bring in partially or fully built energy systems, many of which are foreign-made, and install them in rural communities without long-term accompaniment. With no proper training, communities are powerless to maintain or repair the energy systems or replace broken parts when necessary, and their isolation makes regular technician visits difficult. As a result, without local capacity-building, many communities end up abandoning the new technology, and the positive impact that electrification should have had fails to materialize.
The blueEnergy model revolves around the local manufacture, operation, and maintenance of specially designed hybrid wind/solar energy systems, with a strong focus on local capacity-building and community development. Its wind turbine design is as simple as possible to facilitate local manufacture and maintenance. By combining wind and solar technology, blueEnergy’s energy systems produce a cheaper and more reliable source of power; these hybrid systems can generate more continuous power output under most weather conditions, as there are very few days without either sun or wind. While there are other electrification programs in areas like sub-Saharan Africa and India that also train local communities to manage (and sometimes build) their own energy systems, they rely almost exclusively on solar power, which is less cost-effective than wind power when generated properly.
With the help of The National Technological Institute of Nicaragua (INATEC), blueEnergy hosts workshops and provides training materials for technicians, blueEnergy employees (who are either Nicaraguans or international volunteers), and operators of the energy systems within each community. Once trained, employees in blueEnergy’s local plant manufacture the turbines and install them in Caribbean coast communities. In this way, blueEnergy creates technical jobs in impoverished areas where they are desperately needed. Installing their first energy system in the town of Punta de Águila in September 2004, Mathias and his team have since installed nine more community energy systems.
The hybrid wind/solar energy systems assembled in blueEnergy’s Nicaraguan plant are installed in central locations in each community—usually in the local schoolhouse—as battery charging stations. This initial installation has a one-time cost of between $10,000 and $15,000, which covers the wind and solar energy systems, power center, and battery bank, plus half-yearly maintenance visits for the first three years. Currently this capital cost is paid for by blueEnergy’s donors, although Mathias intends for the government and specially created community energy commissions to contribute to this cost in the future. Individual households then borrow funds from blueEnergy’s microfinance partners, including Kiva.org and Association for the Development and Human Promotion of the Atlantic Coast (ADEPHCA), to purchase home electrification kits that include a battery, wiring, and light bulbs. The cost of these kits varies between $100 for the simplest equipment and $500 for more sophisticated add-ons. Each family pays $3 to $5 each time that they charge their battery at the community charging station; the batteries stay charged for 10 to 21 days and are generally used to power light bulbs, televisions, and radios. The battery charging fees are channeled into a fund managed by a local energy commission created with the support of blueEnergy to maintain the community energy system. By helping communities ensure the longevity of their turbines, blueEnergy reduces households’ average energy costs over the long-term and makes basic electrification accessible.
Another innovative component of blueEnergy’s model is its long-term approach to promoting self-reliance and community development through energy management. The blueEnergy team trains local operators in installation, preventative maintenance, and light maintenance of the turbines, thus allowing communities to solve the most basic technical problems on their own, although technicians from blueEnergy’s plant schedule regular maintenance and training visits every six months and also take care of major repairs due to hurricanes, lightning strikes, and similar incidents. blueEnergy has also introduced electricity-powered applications, such as a radio-based communications system and will soon implement a water management system that purifies, stores, and pumps households’ water to the communities where blueEnergy turbines operate. The sale of these application systems to local households at affordable prices generates revenue for reinvestment in blueEnergy and also contributes to community development beyond mere electrification. The residents of one community have begun charging their cell phone batteries at the community charging station for $.40 apiece, which has become very popular and is fueling the success of blueEnergy’s model through local demand.
With its poor infrastructure and isolated communities, the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua is an extremely challenging place to launch a new energy initiative. Yet Mathias and his team are finding creative solutions to the many obstacles that they have faced, and Mathias believes that if the blueEnergy strategy can succeed in this region, it can succeed in many other developing areas of the world. For example, blueEnergy has circumvented the problem of scarce local technical knowledge by focusing on recruiting trustworthy rather than technically skilled employees and investing heavily in their training. Thanks to the publicity and recruiting efforts of blueEnergy’s French office, the organization has also been able to boost limited human resources in its Nicaraguan office by using international volunteers, many of whom are highly trained engineering students and professionals. blueEnergy has even responded creatively to political changes, such as a recent government ban on logging along the Caribbean coast, which would have rapidly depleted blueEnergy’s supply of building materials. By working with materials experts around the world as well as Nicaraguan boat-builders in the coastal town of Bluefields, blueEnergy has developed a safe and environmentally friendly means of using fiberglass to manufacture turbine blades locally in Nicaragua.
In recent months, one of blueEnergy’s most dedicated French volunteers helped the organization develop a highly detailed operator manual that will be a critical tool in the replication of blueEnergy’s model. The manual is written in Spanish but is heavy on illustrations and photographs, which will allow even semi-literate community operators to understand it. blueEnergy technicians and volunteers will use the manual in training workshops for community operators. As the technical aspects of the blueEnergy model continue to be documented, the manual will also facilitate the model’s replication either by blueEnergy or by other interested organizations.
Due to media exposure on CNN and Larry King Live, blueEnergy has been contacted by the United Nations, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Health Organization, and the Roman Catholic Church to discuss incorporating aspects of the blueEnergy model into their rural development programs. Soon, blueEnergy will sell its turbine-powered energy systems to such organizations to subsidize its community energy projects, which Mathias plans to expand significantly in the next three to five years, focusing on rural regions of the world that make up the majority of the 1.6 billion people still living without electricity. Within Nicaragua, Mathias has partnered with INATEC, which operates eight industrial training centers throughout the country that will serve as nuclei for Mathias’s expansion strategy. Mathias sees enormous potential for the blueEnergy model to be expanded and replicated not only in Nicaragua but throughout other developing regions of the world, especially in countries with large numbers of rural residents without electricity; noting there are 1.6 billion people around the world still lack electricity. Mathias intends to leverage the blueEnergy’s international consortium structure, which is considering new member organizations in Spain, Mongolia, and Ghana, to share experiences and accelerate the learning curve in other countries. blueEnergy will coordinate replication efforts around the world, with regional or country offices in charge of implementing actual strategy and managing daily operations.
blueEnergy has offices in Nicaragua, the U.S., and France. To date, all of blueEnergy’s operations have been based in Nicaragua, with the American and French offices coordinating fundraising and volunteers for the Nicaraguan operations. Thus far, blueEnergy has relied on funding from international development agencies and private donations from foundations and individuals. It expects to achieve financial sustainability in 2009 or 2010 through continued grant-based institutional funding, private donations as well as increasing revenues from the sale of electricity-powered energy, water, and communications systems to local communities when the basic turbines have been installed.
Mathias traveled frequently while he was growing up, which exposed him to cultural, social, and economic circumstances that were very different from those in his native Oregon. He was introduced to Nicaragua by his mother, a French Algerian-born linguist working with indigenous tribes in the Caribbean coast region. When he was young, on two separate visits to Nicaragua, Mathias witnessed the destruction that Hurricane Joan and civil war had wreaked on Caribbean coast communities. He began to build important personal relationships with academics, members of COs, and community leaders in Bluefields, the main town in the region, that would later prove critical to the launch of blueEnergy. Growing up, Mathias spent alternate summers living in France with his mother´s family and Lâl Marandin, a close friend since age two who would later become the third blueEnergy founder with Mathias’s brother Guillaume.
While studying civil and environmental engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, Mathias became interested in renewable energy sources, particularly wind. In his third year he worked extensively on a business plan to start a wind farm with two friends in the hills east of San Francisco, although the three were ultimately unable to secure funding for their venture. Mathias decided to study for a Master’s degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering at MIT, where he continued to learn about wind power on his own and developed the blueEnergy concept for a class on entrepreneurship in the developing world. Nicaragua was a natural choice for blueEnergy due to the lack of services along the Caribbean coast and because of Mathias’s familiarity with the region. After his blueEnergy idea won a prize in an MIT business plan competition, Mathias incorporated blueEnergy in the U.S. and began to work on the organization’s development full-time in 2003. He launched blueEnergy in Nicaragua a year later with his co-founders Guillaume and Lal.
Mathias possesses all the entrepreneurial qualities necessary to build a successful new rural electrification and community development model. He brings to blueEnergy all of his technical expertise as an engineer trained at the prestigious Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley and the Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Through the trials of creating a start-up organization, Mathias has honed his ability to adapt to new circumstances and to overcome obstacles. He has demonstrated an intuition to lead by building a talented team to help him with areas beyond his personal expertise, such as legal matters and media relations, and thanks to his mother’s influence, Mathias possesses great sensitivity toward the cultural challenges of his work. His passion to empower poor communities to take charge of their development through electrification will enable him to spearhead blueEnergy’s expansion as it enters a new phase of national and international growth.