Expanding Rural Energy Access in Nicaragua through Solar Panel Programs

1.3 million people in Nicaragua lack access to electricity, mostly those living in rural areas. This kind of energy poverty can have serious effects on many aspects of life, from health to economic productivity. While some of the larger towns in remote rural areas are served by diesel mini-grids installed by the government-operated utility company, this is often at heavy financial losses which need to be financed by the Government of Nicaragua on a continuous basis. Diesel-powered generators also take a heavy toll on the environment, contaminating the air and contributing to the problem of global climate change. Most rural households, however, don’t even have this option for electricity access. As an alternative, families may rely on kerosene lamps for light. While this solves one problem, it creates others as these lamps emit toxic fumes that degrade the air quality and can lead to serious respiratory illness. To tackle this challenge in Northern Nicaragua, Green Empowerment is working with long-time local NGO partner Association of Rural Development Workers – Ben Linder (ATDER-BL) to support a bottom-up rural renewable electrification movement to positively transform communities in need.

Since 1989, ATDER-BL has used locally-constructed micro- and small-scale hydroelectric plants to provide reliable electricity to over 30,000 people by powering homes, schools, clinics, and businesses. Unfortunately, extension of these grids to the thousands of dispersed, remote households in the area is very cost prohibitive. To meet the needs of these isolated communities, in 2009 ATDER-BL and GE created a rural solar panel program. The program provided interest free credit and a 25-50% cost subsidy to families to support their purchase of a 50- or 100-watt solar system, in addition to training 10 local technicians to install and maintain the systems. By using a microcredit model and training locals as technicians, the program not only solved the problem of energy access for purchasing families, but also promoted financial literacy and responsibility, ensured local ownership, and provided income-generating opportunities for those trained. With the support of the United Nations Development Fund and the GIZ Nicaragua, 355 systems were installed by the end of 2015.

With solid evidence of this model’s success, GE and ATDER-BL are now looking to expand the program further and reach even more households in need. To do this, we are working together to create a revolving loan fund that will provide rural families with 15-month interest-free microcredits for the purchase of solar systems. The proposed $300,000 fund will provide the capital needed to order materials for solar systems to benefit 1,000 households in 2016-2017 alone. By providing micro-credit to families to help pay for the installation of solar systems instead of simply “gifting” the systems to households, the program promotes financial literacy and responsibility and creates a sustainable revolving fund which has the potential to benefit 6,000 households over the next ten years.Now we just need the money to make it happen. Thanks to funding partners EKOenergy and Energy for All, we’re well on our way to providing thousands of rural Nicaraguans with access to clean, renewable energy to improve their lives and strengthen their communities. Consider making a donation today, and help us make this vision a reality.

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