In July, HeatSpring published a Sustainable Women Series article featuring the Founder and CEO of GRID Alternatives, a national non-profit that facilitates affordable solar power projects, oftentimes in low-income communities. In this follow-up article, I spoke with Jenean Smith, the Director of the International Programs at GRID Alternatives, whose working on a 16 kW solar microgrid project in the rural Nepalian village of Dhapchung (one of the communities hit hardest during Nepal’s 2015 earthquake).
In a nutshell, its a 16kW solar microgrid for a rural village called Dhapchung in Nepal. We’re installing this project to bring solar electricity to 40 homes, one school and local businesses in the community. These electricity resources will unlock educational potential for people there, as well as create income-generating opportunities (i.e. opening a saw mill to expedite the reconstruction of homes, and a grain mill to process crops grown locally) through start-up businesses. We’re also doing this so that we can share our best practices with the industry since rural microgrids are a topic of much interest to many, but few have figured out how to build and/or leverage them in a way that is sustainable.
We’re partnering with four local Nepali organizations for this project, making sure we really take into account the needs and involvement of the community so that the microgrid stays up and running for the long term. We’re using a pre-pay pay-as-you-go system so families can pay for only what they can afford, without going into debt for energy services. The funds collected are used to maintain the system and are collected and managed by a local woman in the community’s Mother’s Group.
Ultimately, this is a pilot project that will demonstrate how a rural microgrid can be implemented in a sustainable way and act as a development multiplier within communities. If successful, this will be one of only a few other rural community microgrid models that are self-sustaining and meet the long-term needs of the beneficiaries.
After the devastating earthquake in April 2015, Nepal is still working hard to rebuild itself. It was in the wake of this disaster that GRID Alternatives launched our project to bring solar power to one of the most impacted communities, the village of Dhapchung. It’s extremely remote, the closest village being a three-hour walk. Dhapchung’s residents are Tamang, an ethnic group indigenous to the Nepalian Himalayan regions. The majority of residents, many of whom are subsistence farmers, rely largely on non-renewable energy sources which are generally expensive, unreliable, and toxic.
What, specifically, is GRID Alternatives role?
GRID Alternatives volunteers and staff will travel to Dhapchung to begin the project in September 2016. We’re the developer. We worked with a local organization to identify the village, and together with other partners we’ve designed the project to promote long term sustainability, community involvement and women’s empowerment. Our role is also to share what we learn with others to help the energy access industry learn more about ways to install rural microgrids where the people are the center of the project, not just the technology.
What impact has GRID Alternatives’ International Program already had in Nicaragua, your other area of international focus?
GRID’s International Program has installed more than 70 off-grid PV systems in 28 communities in Nicaragua. Our systems range from 265 watts to more than a 1kw and are installed on schools, health clinics, homes, and rural farms. We’ve led 26 trips to Nicaragua with more than 260 volunteers from the US, Canada, India and Nicaragua. It’s hard to measure the environmental impacts since our systems are off-grid, so they are not usually replacing systems that are powered by dirty energy sources.
We’ve had some projects where the grid arrives and the community prefers to keep using their off-grid solar system instead, and we do have systems where farmers have replaced diesel pumps with solar. Many families have stopped using kerosene since their solar systems became available. Our workforce development initiative has also given internships and jobs and volunteer opportunities to many Nicaraguan citizens, which helps grow the solar industry in general. They’re also a huge educational opportunity for community members.
How did the program start and are there plans to expand to other areas in Latin America?
The program started in 2008 as Power to the People when a bunch of renewable energy advocates got together to raise funds for our first project. We worked in a rural community in Nicaragua that I had been to before as a Peace Corps volunteer from 2001-2003. We do have plans to work in other areas but are expanding slowly so that we can maintain our model of sustainable development and our commitment to keeping the projects we’ve installed up and running. We work with a number of other organizations, some have their own “volun-tourism” programs to support the work they do.
What have been the successes and challenges with this program?
Lots of logistical challenges arise when working in rural areas. Working in a developing country where we have to import most things, and finding staff that are trained in the technical aspects of solar energy is difficult. However, we’ve had lots of successes– nearly all of the systems we have installed are up and running and the communities are engaged in the projects. There are many examples of how the systems have improved lives – this is what it’s all about!
Jenean Smith is the Director of the International Programs at GRID Alternatives. An advocate for the advancement and use of renewable energy technologies, she got her start in the solar industry in 2007. In the past, she’s worked for Mitsubishi Electric’s Solar Division and Trojan Battery Company’s Renewable Energy Division. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology from the University of Massachusetts, and MBA from Northeastern University, and a Master’s degree in Sustainable International Development from the Heller School of Policy and Management at Brandeis University.
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