Friday, November 30, 2012

Highlighting Renewable Energy Alternatives in Talamanca and Helping Costa Rica Become Carbon Neutral by 2021

As Peace Corps volunteers, when Melinda and I first arrived in our site we were tasked with writing a community diagnostic which we would share with our counterpart organizations and community, and which would also serve as a tool to get to know our community, discover our resources and help us integrate.  One of the basic questions asked from both a perspective of understanding seasonal patterns (both socially and economically) and security/disaster preparedness was, "How is the climate of this region?"  Community members responses almost always started like this, "Well, in the past it was much more predictable and there were well-defined rainy seasons and less drastic changes.  Now we have more floods, hotter weather and it rains whenever it wants to."  When you ask long-time residents whether they believe climate change is a real threat, there is a resounding answer, "Absolutely!"
Pierre Lambot of Purasol measuring the roof for the panels

We live on the tropical Caribbean southeast coast which is particularly vulnerable to the effects of global warming. There are two main economic industries in this area: toursism and agriculture.  Additionally, this is an incredibly biodiverse area which includes both Cahuita National Park and the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge as well as sharing the La Amistad International Park with Panama.

Pierre Lambot (Purasol), Harold González (Purasol),
Berny Tencio (Purasol), Jonathan Barrantes Gutiérrez
(Corredor Biológico and Henry installing the solar panel rails

From an agricultural perspective, the two main export crops are bananas and plantains.  Much of the production of both occur near river banks where they can be easily irrigated.  Unfortunately, as a cause of the increased severe weather, there has been increased flooding of these rivers, specifically in the Sixaola River Basin between Bribri and Sixaola on the Panama border, which has damaged the production and has had a major impact on the economic condition of the region.  In addition to commercial production, many families also rely on domestic production of fruits and vegetables to feed their families, especially in more remote areas of the region.  Recently, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and my counterpart, the Corredor Biológico Talamanca Caribe, co-sponsored a Seed Exchange Fair (Feria de Intercambio de Semillas) in the indigenous Talamanca community of Bambú to encourage farmers to share rare seeds to promote agricultural diversity in the face of climate change and to promote food security initiatives, including the implementation of seedbanks.

Jonathan and Henry installing the
Enphase inverters

From a tourism perspective, the major toursist destinations in Talamanca reside on the coast, including Cahuita, Puerto Viejo and all the beaches south to Manzanillo.  With the prediction that sea levels will rise as a part of global warming because of polar ice melt, these low-lying coastal areas carry significant risk of being consumed by rising ocean waters.  Not only would this cause severe economic costs in terms of tourism, but would also displace residents and workers in these communities.  As far as biodiversity is concerned, many species are vulnerable to even small changes in temperature, including bio-cooling mechanisms to changes in depletion of food sources as a result of severe weather, or the increase of plagues and disease which may follow increases/decreases in weather patterns.  Especially vulnerable are the coral reefs that lie along the coast, with which small temperature variations may have significant effects.

Stephen Lanning (Peace Corps), Jonathan Barrantes Gutiérrez (Corredor
Biológico and Pierre Lambot (Purasol) installing the first panel
As a method to highlight these risks and help mitigate the effects of climate change, I undertook a project alongside my counterpart organization, the Corredor Biológico, to install solar panels in their offices to be used as an education and demonstration center for sustainable renewable energy alternatives and to help bring awareness to the reality of climate change, its possible implications and to encourage the environmentally sustainable techniques and habits which will help the region, and the planet to mitigate the approaching effects of a warming planet.  In fact, Costa Rica is taking a bold step in this direction, as they are attempting to become the first country to become carbon neutral by the year 2021.  However, with continuing economic and infrastructural development in this country, this goal has become increasingly more difficult and will require an increasing effort to not only in adopting renewal energy alternatives, but also in diminishing the energy and resources for which each citizen consumes.

Pierre inspects the work as others continue installation
The Corredor Biológico is an obvious fit for the solar panel installation, being a non-profit, non-governmental organization that can benefit economically from the cost-savings of solar energy production.  However, more importantly is that their organizational mission is to protect the biological corridor (also known as wildlife or green corridor) which aims to conserve and protect the flora and fauna that exist in the area.  As these species rely heavily on the mitigation of climate change, the majority of their work revolves around this field including payment for environmental (ecosystem) services, solid waste management, diversification of agricultural production, reforestation and environmental education, among others projects.  The Corredor Biológico also hosts 1,000+ visitors per year, who can ask questions about the panels (easily visible on the roof as a converastion piece), has 17 member organizations and has 15 schools in their Environmental Education Program, which will further expand the awareness and educational reach of the project.  One particularly important educational piece of the project was to connect the solar panels to a internet tool, which allows interested parties the ability to see the real-time results of energy production and consumption, with graphs displaying trends over time to allow for energy auditing.

Pierre Lambot of Purasol making a presentation on renewable energy
The Corredor Biológico and Peace Corps also sponsored three events to help highlight the project, including an interactive discussion on basic techniques for energy and environmental resource conservation in the office and home, given by Peace Corps Bandera Azul Committee Members and partners at IBM (who are helping in both the financing and implementation of the project), a renewable energy workshop provider by the solar panels providers, Purasol, and a third related project, yet-to-be-determined.

Many thanks need to go out to out in regard to the success of this project.  I'd like to thank Purasol for their tireless work, from the design and endless paperwork to the financing, installation and contributing the renewable energy workshop free of charge.  Thank you Pierre, Arine, Harold and  Berny, as well as others behind the scenes are Purasol for bringing such an important project to life for both the Corredor Biológico and the region of Talamanca.  The project was done on-time and with excellent installation and craftsmanship.  I couldn't be more appreciative of their work and would highly recommend them to anyone who is interested in any of the renewable energy products they offer.

Pierre (Purasol), Berny (Purasol), Stephen (Peace Corps) and Alonso Loiaza (IBM) inspect a work well-done. 

Secondly, I'd like to thank CRUSA and ECPA for their contributions in helping to finance this project.  I would also like to recognize IBM, and especially the work of Alonso Loiaza, Service Level Agreement Analyst, for his efforts in obtaining financing through an internal grant process for employees interested in volunteerism.  I would also like to thank both Alonso and Leonardo Álvarez for their participation in the workshop on environmental resource conservation.

Another picture of the solar panels after installation

There were twelve panels in total with 8 facing
 the front of the office and 4 installed on the other side
Next, I'd like to thank the Corredor Biológico for their assistance in making the project happen including Karla Murillo for her help in revising the grants and especially in checking the grammar as all the grants were written in Spanish (approximately 40 pages each), and Rosa Bustillos Lemaire, Juan Carlos Barrantes, Gustavo Obando and Junior Wilson Rivera for all the countless paperwork requests, and for technical and event planning asistance.  I also appreciate the technical assistance provided by Jonathan Barrantes Gutierrez for helping in both the installation and also other prior maintenance preparation.

I'd also like to acknowledge ICE and their assistance in connecting the panels to their electrical grid, becoming one of the first organizations in our region to be a part of their pilot program "Generacíon Distribuida Para Autoconsumo".

ICE installing the bi-directional meter which allows excess energy
production from the solar panels to be fed back to the ICE electrictal grid
while Juan Carlos Barrantes of the Corredor Biológico looks on
Additionally, I'd like to thank the Peace Corps office for all of their support, including Alvaro Madrigal, Program Training Specialist for the Rural Community Development Program, for his countless reviews of the grant proposals.  I'd also like to thank Steve Dorsey, Peace Corps Country Director, and Moises Leon, Program Director for the Rural Community Development Program, for their enthusiasm for the project and for video-taping the renewable energy workshop and solar panel inauguration.  Additional recognition goes out to Gabriela Arce and Anna Baker, who also helped present the first energy conservation workshop.

The installation of the panels would not have
happened without incredible support from the Peace Corps staff 

Lastly, I'd like to thank my wife, Melinda, for her love, support and tolerance of the long hours sacrificed and for her coordination of volunteers and assistance during the events listed above; but moreover, for also for being courageous enough to join the Peace Corps with me in the first place.  It has been an absolute privilege to work alongside her and share this wonderful journey in Costa Rica.

The solar panels can be seen from the street and will be a conversation piece to talk
about renewable energy and climate change