Stories of Energy

In-depth (based on site visits with extensive interviews)

  1. China - Biogas - Millions of rural households in China have switched to homemade biogas for cooking, with far-reaching environmental and social benefits.

Capsule (shorter pieces which appear below)

  1. Cuba - Rural Solar Power - Solar power brings numerous benefits to off-the-grid rural areas.
  2. Dominican Republic - Solar Based Rural Electrification - Small-scale enterprises for rural electrification with solar panels begin in the Dominican Republic and spread through Latin America and other parts of the world.
  3. Germany - Feldheim - Energy Independent Community. A community becomes completely energy independent with wind, biogas, and solar.
  4. Mexico - Michoacán - The Patsari Stove - The Interdisciplinary Group for Appropriate Rural Technologies designed and distributed a low-pollution wood stove.
  5. Peru - Micro-Hydro Power - Isolated communities on the eastern slopes of the Andes achieve electrification with small hydroelectric generators in rivers and streams.
  6. USA - Power to the People - Thanks to a new online platform, small investors can join together to fund solar energy projects.
  7. USA - Colorado (Boulder) - Namaste Solar Electric - A photovoltaics company offers renewable energy and a socially conscious business model.
  8. USA - Hawaii (Oahu) - Sustainable Saunders Initiative - College students lead the effort to make the University of Hawai’i more sustainable.
  9. Vanuatu - Coconut Oil as an Alternative Fuel - In a time of decreasing copra prices and increasing petroleum prices, coconut oil holds promise as a "biodiesel” fuel.
  10. Zimbabwe - Microhydropower - Microhydropower brings low-impact energy to rural villages.

Cuba - Rural Solar Power

There seems to be no "environmental tipping point," but this is a good example of energy for rural areas out of reach of the national grid, and how appropriate technology can become one of many alternative models for development.

As with other rural areas, extending the power grid to rural areas in Cuba is often too expensive. Photovoltaic cells are expensive to make because they are pure silicon, and manufacturing them requires high levels of energy. But they can be imported to Cuba in bulk from Germany or Spain, and then assembled completely in Cuba.

The non-governmental organization Cubasolar has won some international recognition for its efforts to bring solar power to rural regions. Their focus is to provide solutions to social problems through providing an energy supply, and so they concentrate on bringing this supply to two sectors: health and education.

Las Tumbas is a small coffee-growing village of one hundred people, located in Cuba's mountainous interior, 140 km west of Havana. Before the village had power, people just went to bed early, but now they are able to study or do other activities after dark. First, the school was connected, and two new technologies were introduced: (1) A computer, which has potential not only through internet access but to a variety of other teaching materials and tools made available to teachers and students; (2) A television, which of course brings mixed benefits, but people are better informed about current events and one channel in Cuba is dedicated to education. Video equipment also gives the opportunity to watch documentaries.

All homes have their own panels, which accumulate enough energy in the batteries for 4-5 hours of lighting after dark, and to play a small radio. In the local clinic, some important vaccines and medications can now be refrigerated, so families don't have to travel to the nearest city for vaccines. There is also a transmitting radio, so that in an emergency, the local doctor can communicate with the nearest hospital. Also, the clinic can stay open at night, so medical attention can be given to people who can't come during the day because of work.

The success of this project and others has motivated the Cuban government to invest in renewable energy in other parts of the country out of reach of the national power grid.

Benefits/services: Educational opportunities, access to information, improved access to medical care, increased range of freedom and opportunities with household electrification after dark.

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Dominican Republic - Solar Based Rural Electrification

In 1984 American engineer Richard Hansen installed solar panels on a friend's house in a small off-the-grid village in the Dominican Republic. The Martinez family paid him back in monthly installments equivalent to their usually expenses for batteries and kerosene, with which they had previously powered appliances and lit their home. The system provided them with clean, safe, reliable electricity and neighbors immediately began asking about how to install their own system.

Noting that most grant-based projects suffered from a lack of local know-how, poor technical assistance and no sense of ownership over the project, Hansen, through his non-profit Enersol, devised a market driven electrification strategy based on micro-enterprises that came to be known as the SO-BASEC (Solar Based Electrification Concept) strategy.

It consists of identifying talented locals, and training them as certified photovoltaic (PV) systems technicians. Upon completion of the course, individuals install a system for a neighbor to showcase the technology in their communities. Technicians are encouraged to start their own business and are also offered follow up assistance not just with technical issues, but with business development skills such as marketing and accounting. These individuals are urged to join a professional network to further pursue common interests.

Their clients obtain loans to purchase the photovoltaic system from local NGOs that are already established and trusted by the community, and the PV system itself acts as collateral. These NGOs in turn are able to obtain credits from banks using Enersol grant monies as collateral.

The project was so successful that by 1990 over a thousand PV systems had been installed in homes, businesses, churches, schools and clinics throughout the Dominican Republic. In 1991 Enersol expanded its operations into Honduras, where the thousand installation milestone was reached in only three years.

In 1993 Hansen realized that there were profits to be made in this emerging field, and founded Soluz, Inc. Though Enersol continued to function as a non-profit organization encouraging locals to form their own rural electrification micro-enterprises, Soluz further evolved the core strategy by eliminating the need to obtain bank loans. Instead of owning their PV system, Soluz customers rent it. They pay a monthly fee which covers installation and maintenance. By the mid-1990s Hansen was doing consulting work for similar projects around the world, and in 1996 he founded Global Transitions Consulting, whose clients include the World Bank, and USAID.

Meanwhile, the non-profit Enersol continued to expand its own operations. In 1995 it launched its AGUASOL project which allows communities to acquire solar-powered potable water systems. At least 17 such systems have now been installed. And in 2000 it inaugurated its EDUSOL program which offers solar-powered computer systems to rural schools. Nearly thirty schools have benefited so far.  Other projects include solar-based communications networks for national parks.

In all their projects Hansen and his team have insisted on local partnerships with non-profit organizations and businesses alike, and make sure that women are involved at all stages. This undoubtedly is a major reason for their remarkable success, and is also a reason why their model has been replicated from Bolivia to India. In recognition of their efforts Hansen and Soluz were recognized as Technology Pioneers in the World Economic Forum of 2003.

Further details at:

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Germany - Feldheim – Energy Independent Community

Energiequelle GmbH and the 145 residents of Feldheim, Germany were determined to make the community completely energy independent—from fossil fuels and from the energy company that kept increasing prices. It took about 5 years and 2 million euros, but in April 2010 they finally achieved this goal with a mix of renewable resources—wind, biogas, and solar—and their own heat and electricity networks.

Germany - Feldheim – Energy Independent Community


In 1998, Energiequelle co-founder Michael Raschemann built his first four 85-meter wind turbines at Feldheim. Today there are 43, with an installed capacity of 74.1 megawatts (MW = million watts). They produce an average of 170 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) per year.


Feldheim’s biogas plant was completed by the local farmers cooperative in 2008. Its input is 3,500 m3 of pig and cow manure, plus 6,775 tons of corn silage and crop residues. Its output is 11,250 m3 of fertilizer, 4 million kWh of electricity, and 4.3 million kWh of heat. At first, only the cooperative and a pig farm were using the heat, but since a heat network was completed in December 2009, the entire community benefits. 41 residences, the cooperative, 3 pig farms, and a factory are connected to the heat network. In times of extreme cold, a wood chip power plant springs into action to supplement the biogas. It is estimated this saves 160,000 liters of fuel oil every year.


Electricity also flows from Energiequelle’s 40-hectare Solarpark Selterhof. It was built on a former military training area donated by the municipality of Treuenbrietzen. The city removed trees, and Energiequelle cleaned up unexploded ordnance to make way for 96 photovoltaic arrays. Each has a motorized tracking device, which Energiequelle now manufactures itself in its new factory (EQ-SYS) in Feldheim, using energy from its wind turbines. The capacity is now 750 kW, and average annual output is 1.125 million kWh of electricity. During 2010 more solar arrays will be added, and the solar park will have a capacity of 2.25 MW, with a commensurate tripling of the output.

According to Werner Frohwitter at Energiequelle, the community of Feldheim only uses about 250,000 kWh of electricity per year; the remainder is sold on the regional transmission grid.

The final step was to build a new electric grid to become completely independent from energy giant Eon. In fact, the community formed its own energy company, a sort of consumer cooperative called Feldheim Energie GmbH & Co. KG, in 2008. Its partners include all of the community’s landowners--43 households, plus 2 businesses, the farmers cooperative, the municipality of Treuenbrietzen, EQ-SYS, and Energiequelle. Each customer paid 3,000 euros (approx. $4,000) for a connection to the heat and electric networks; two households chose the electric only for 1,500 euros. In return they are guaranteed that the price of energy will not rise for 20 years. In fact, it may decrease noticeably in 12 years, when the debts are all repaid.  That will be determined by the shareholders, each of whom has an equal vote. Currently the prices are 16.6 euro-cents per kWh for electricity (plus a flat service charge of 5.95 euros per month) and 7.5 euro-cents per kWh for heat (plus 29.95 euros per month). This is over 15% cheaper than what Eon charges, and the difference is expected to grow as conventional energy prices increase in the future.

Feldheim has attracted visitors from other parts of Germany and other European countries, and even places as far away as Chile, Japan, and Thailand. Such village-scale, multi-resource systems are especially appropriate for countries with large rural populations not linked to an electric grid. Next on the agenda is creation of an “energy competence center” in the vacant restaurant building, to promote the research and educational value of Feldheim’s energy independence.

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Mexico - Michoacán - The Patsari Stove

Can a wood-burning stove be environmentally friendly?

Readers used to cooking on gas or electric stoves may find it hard to believe, but approximately half the world's population still relies on solid fuels (wood, dung, coal) as their primary fuel source. Not only does the wide use of firewood contribute to local deforestation, but the regular use of open fires in the home is linked to acute respiratory infections in children & chronic respiratory illness (including tuberculosis and cancer) in adults. Regular exposure to indoor smoke has also been linked to other ailments, including ear infections, cataracts and unsuccessful pregnancies. It is responsible for over a million and a half premature deaths each year, disproportionately among women and children.

So, given all the environmental and public health concerns that surround the burning of firewood, how can a wood burning stove be good for the environment? By reducing the amount of wood used relative to traditional open fires and significantly improving both household air quality and family health. The Patsari stove does all these things.

It was developed in Mexico, where approximately one quarter of the population- or 28 million- still rely on open fires for cooking and/or heating. The Interdisciplinary Group for Appropriate Rural Technologies (GIRA), based in the central Mexican state of Michoacán, used a participatory approach in which input was provided by actual users from indigenous Purhépecha communities, to design a simple yet effective stove which rural households are now actively embracing instead of the traditional open fires.

It consists of a closed, boxlike combustion chamber which cuts fuel use in half, and a chimney to channel smoke out of the home, which results in a 70% reduction in indoor air pollution. Hot plates on the top surface, over the fire, provide the cooking surface.

Despite the promise of improved efficiency and cleaner air, families were initially reluctant to change the way they've cooked for thousands of years. The tipping point came rather unexpectedly, when women realized that kitchens with the Patsari stove were both cleaner and easier to keep clean. As of 2006, over 3,500 hundred families and 70 small businesses had installed Patsari stoves. Microcredits and discounts to businesses have been made available to facilitate the widespread adoption of the Patsari stove.

By purchasing the pre-made parts (such as the chimney) from local providers and training local residents in the construction and promotion of Patsari stoves, the project becomes self-sustaining. Local governments and NGOs often provide the raw materials (which are obtained locally), so that customers need only pay the stove-builder's labor. Over 100 individuals have been trained as stove-builders, who in turn train families on proper operation and maintenance. Builders conduct at least three follow-up visits to check the stoves and correct any deficiencies.

Health studies have since shown Patsari households to suffer from 30% less respiratory infections and 50% less eye infections, adding further incentive to switch. These health benefits could be even larger once neighboring households also adopt the Patsari stove.

For all these reasons, GIRA won an Ashden Award for Sustainable Energy in 2006.

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Peru - Micro-Hydro Power

Although the Eastern slopes of the Andes offer some of the most beautiful scenery in Peru, it is also one of the least developed regions in the country. The difficulty of access to this mountainous zone has prevented its electrification, and the small, scattered population continues to dwindle as people leave their villages for opportunities in larger, more developed cities in other parts of the country.

Practical Action Peru (PAP), the Latin American branch of a UK non-profit organization founded in 1966, has been working to reverse these trends since 1985 by offering small mountain communities an alternative energy source that relies on the region's abundant rivers and streams. By working with local villagers, Practical Action Peru has installed nearly 50 micro-hydroelectric turbine systems that have benefited over 30,000 people.

These systems require a controlled water flow which depends on a series of channels and chambers that divert a portion of the flow of streams and rivers toward the turbine. Though most of the parts are made by small factories in Peru (which makes the project more sustainable and facilitates its widespread adoption), some of the more advanced components are still imported. In addition, there are operating and maintenance costs to consider. It all adds up to a considerable investment.

Which is why PAP works closely with each community to determine a customized finance and management plan. In most cases, the PAP donates about 60% of the total costs, the community contributes about 15% in labor, and the remaining is borrowed from the Inter-American Development Bank. The loan is usually repaid in 3 to 6 years, and so far the repayment rate is above 90%.

Most communities own their micro-hydro system, while micro-businesses are subcontracted to oversee operation and maintenance. A community management group sets electricity prices, bills customers, pays this micro-business for operating and maintenance costs, and repays the loan. PAP trains both the management group and micro-business on all aspects of their micro-hydro system, and continues to offer assistance in solving larger problems that may arise.

The economic benefits of local electrification have been astounding. Sixty percent of villagers report that their income has increased since the arrival of electricity; 20% report an increase of 50% or more in their income. Roughly 1,000 businesses have either expanded or been started due to electrification. These include restaurants, bakeries, furniture makers, ice cream factories, welders and internet cafes.

In addition the population flight has been reversed, and villagers are returning from the cities. Several villages have even doubled in size. Ninety percent of the population growth since electrification in one such town was due to the return of former residents who brought their businesses with them.

Schools now have computers and photocopiers, and at home students can study under electric lights. Teachers are more likely to live in these villages and otherwise contribute to the community now that they can enjoy electricity.

Health clinics and laboratories can refrigerate medicines, vaccines and samples; sterilize equipment; keep computerized records; and communicate by radio with larger health facilities.

In the home, appliances such as refrigerators, blenders and TV are now available. Kerosene lamps have been replaced by electric lights, saving families up to 70% of their energy costs, and improving the health of women and children affected by the fumes of burning fuel.

The Peruvian Government now realizes that micro-hydroelectric systems are the best way to electrify and develop this part of the country, and has adopted a plan to install 50 more of these systems. In addition, PAP has partnered with Engineers Without Frontiers to offer courses and organize conferences to help spread the adoption of these technologies (and others) elsewhere around the world. Similar programs have been implemented in Bolivia, Guatemala, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

For further details, visit the Ashden Awards website

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USA - Power to the People

“Abundant clean energy for and by the people” is Mosaic’s mission.  “We're building a platform for people to participate in and benefit from the clean-energy revolution,” says co-founder and president Billy Parish.  “We're aiming to be the leading investment platform for the clean-energy economy."  With its unique platform, even very small investors (with as little as $25) can help fund solar projects and reap the rewards.

To get started, in 2012 the company raised $3.4 million from venture capital investors and received a $2 million grant from the Department of Energy's SunShot Incubator Program.  That program gives grants to small businesses and entrepreneurs who are working on technology that (a) makes solar more accessible for Americans, and (b) helps toward getting the cost of solar below $1 per watt by 2020.

The JOBS (Jumpstart Our Business Startups) Act is also designed to support enterprises like Mosaic.  Upon signing the Act in April 2012, President Obama said, "For the first time, ordinary Americans will be able to go online and invest in entrepreneurs that they believe in."  But the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has still not adopted rules to implement the crowdfunding provisions of the JOBS Act.  Until then, Mosaic is working with state regulators to allow the offer of securities to the general public.  Currently, “accredited” investors (i.e., millionaires and institutions) from all over the country can invest with Mosaic, but its projects can be offered to “non-accredited” investors only in California and New York.

How it works

Mosaic (formerly Solar Mosaic) selects high-quality solar projects in need of financing, and prepares prospectuses for investors.  On Mosaic’s investment platform ( each investor creates a personal account, then browses online through available projects and chooses an investment.  Many of the projects are relatively small-scale solar systems for non-profit, community-based organizations.  Besides not having to struggle with obtaining funding from banks or institutional lenders, the organizations enjoy lower-than-average borrowing costs, and the investors enjoy higher-than-average returns.

Mosaic brings together small investors to fund community solar projects

Mosaic brings together small investors to fund community solar projects

Solar projects typically consist of photovoltaic panels that either (a) generate on-site electric power for small businesses or non-profit organizations, or (b) generate power for sale to an electric utility or other “off-taker” pursuant to a power purchase agreement.  The projects can also generate revenue by selling solar renewable energy credits to utilities.  Investors are paid back from the revenue generated; every month a payment is made to the investor’s online account which includes principal plus interest.  One can easily re-invest the funds into new projects, or transfer them to a bank account.  Once deposited into an individual’s Mosaic account, the funds are FDIC-insured up to $250,000.

Interest paid varies by project, but with a general range of 4.4% to 5.5%, Mosaic’s investment opportunities currently outperform both 5-year certificates of deposit and 10-year Treasury bonds.  They are slightly more risky, because repayment is entirely dependent on the borrower making payments, which in turn depends on the power produced and sold.  To date, over $5.3 million has been invested through Mosaic and investors have received 100% on-time repayments.  [Note:  Past performance does not guarantee future results, and every conceivable risk is explained in each project prospectus.]

Mosaic earns money with loan origination fees and a “platform fee” of 1%, which it subtracts from loan repayments prior to giving the returns to the investors.  For instance, if a project has a 5.5% interest rate for the developer, Mosaic keeps 1% and gives a 4.5% rate of return to the online investors.

Diagram of a typical solar finance arrangement

Diagram of a typical solar finance arrangement
Source:  Mosaic prospectuses


Mosaic began its “beta” phase with non-interest-bearing investments in the spring of 2012.  It assembled interest-free financing for five projects in California and Arizona:

1.5kW on the Navajo Project in the Navajo Nation, Arizona ($2,800)
26kW on St. Vincent de Paul in Oakland, California ($17,700)
9kW on the Murdoch Community Center in Flagstaff, Arizona ($18,275)
9kW on the Peoples Grocery in Oakland, California ($11,300) - see related ETP story
29kW on the Asian Resource Center in Oakland, California ($37,200)

Happy investors, People’s Grocery in Oakland, California

Happy investors, People’s Grocery in Oakland, California - see related ETP story

The first interest-bearing project, in September 2012, was a 47-kilowatt installation on the Youth Employment Partnership center in Oakland, California.  Selected investors were promised very favorable terms of 6.38% with a repayment time of just 5 years.  In just 6 days, 51 investors fully funded the $40,000, 106-panel installation.  The project is expected to save the youth center more than $160,000 through reduced electricity costs—money that can now be used toward the organization’s mission.

Mosaic launched its public web platform in January 2013.  Within 24 hours the first four projects (all affordable housing projects in California) were sold out—a clear indication of pent-up demand, according to co-founder and CEO Dan Rosen.  Over 400 investors put in between $25 and $30,000 (average $700) for a total of $313,000.

So far, other fully funded projects include the following:

Project Amount Yield Term Prospectus
426 kW on U.S. Foods
in Albuquerque, NM
$453,950 5.75% 120 months Prospectus
322 kW on Farmlands
in Gerber, CA
$294,775 5.5% 144 months Prospectus
662 kW on Pinnacle Charter School
in Federal Heights, CO
$450,000 5.4% 120 months Prospectus
251 kW on University of Florida Apartments
in Gainesville, FL
$377,600 4.4% 108 months Prospectus
114 KW on the Ronald McDonald House
in San Diego, CA
$152,700 4.5% 117 months Prospectus
487 kW on the Wildwoods Convention Center
in Wildwood, NJ
$350,000 4.5% 114 months Prospectus

For projects still in need of funding, see the Mosaic website
For further information see an introductory video

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USA - Colorado (Boulder) - Namaste Solar Electric

Civil engineer Blake Jones once worked for Brown and Root (a subsidiary of Halliburton) in the Middle East oil and gas industry. But he had a "gradual awakening to wanting passionately to work with renewable energy because I thought there was a better way." He moved on to Nepal to install solar and hydroelectric systems in remote areas.

In 2004, Amendment 37 was approved by Colorado voters, requiring the state's biggest utilities to get 10% of their power from renewable resources by 2015 (including 4% from solar power). "It hit me," said Jones, "the biggest impact I can make is back home in Colorado, where we have fantastic solar resources. The U.S. is the largest consumer of energy and we need to recapture our leadership in the world for setting a positive example."

In 2005, Jones joined with friends Wes Kennedy and Ray Tuomey to start up Namaste (which means "greeting of great respect, celebrating the interdependence of all living beings") Solar Electric. It is the very model of a righteous business, both ecologically and socially. The company's website states "We measure 'profit' and 'success' in a holistic way that includes not just traditional economic metrics (i.e. earnings and growth) but also the effects on our natural environment, work environment and local/global communities." Some interesting features include the following:

  • The company is employee-owned, and all major decisions are made by consensus. Every employee has equal pay, and gets six weeks paid time off per year.
  • Whenever possible, business trips (even deliveries of solar equipment) are conducted by bicycle. The company van runs on biodiesel, and the company car is a Prius. What little carbon they generate is offset with the purchase of carbon credits.
  • The new office building is 100% wind and solar powered and has a xeriscaped garden. It is built of recycled building materials. All the office furniture and carpet is secondhand, and they use carpet tiles so that only the worn out pieces need to be replaced. Kitchen waste is composted and nearly everything else is recycled, with a goal of zero waste.
  • The company donates 1% of its annual revenue to non-profit organizations, in the form of grants which are not money, but solar systems. It's the gift that keeps on giving, they say. Beneficiaries have included schools, homeless shelters, environmental organizations, and a local radio station.
  • Namaste partners with public schools, universities, and non-profits such as Solar Energy International to conduct workshops, classes, and internships.
  • It also is active in promoting more solar-friendly laws at the Colorado legislature and Public Utilities Commission.

Namaste's unique business model has made it the subject of many case studies by MBA students. The company can show impressive results: Namaste has installed over 350 photovoltaic systems in the Denver-Boulder area, including prominent projects such as the Governor's mansion. The number of employees has grown from 3 to 45. Triple-digit growth (i.e., at least doubling each year) is the norm.

Business really took off in 2006, when the local utility, Xcel, announced its rebate program. By the end of 2007, the utility had paid out $19.5 million to more than 1,000 customers for more than 4.3 megawatts of power. State sales tax rebates and federal tax credits also help to offset the average $12,000 cost of a photovoltaic system. According to satisfied customer Hal Stuber, "for every $3 of cost, from rebates and tax credits I'm getting $2 back." A further incentive is net metering (or Grid-Tie), where his electric meter actually runs backward, feeding power into the grid, when his system produces more than is being consumed.

The future of solar energy in Colorado became even brighter in 2007, when Governor Bill Ritter - a strong proponent of a "New Energy Economy" - signed a law that set a goal of 20% renewables by 2020.

For more information see the Namaste Solar Electric website.

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USA - Hawaii (Oahu) - Sustainable Saunders Initiative

The University of Hawai'i at Manoa (UHM) campus is the second-largest consumer of electricity on the island of Oahu, second only to the military. Since over 75% of the island's electricity comes from burning oil, and the utility passes oil price increases directly on to the consumer, UHM's electric bill kept going up - -despite efforts at energy conservation and an actual reduction in kilowatt-hours used. The bills amounted to over $15,000,000 in 2005, and were projected to rise to $21,300,000 million in 2007. In response to the "sticker shock" of rapidly rising electric bills and its impact on the University's budget, the UHM Chancellor's Office convened an Energy Summit on October 24, 2006. The Chancellor proposed a Clean Energy Policy with the ambitious goals of:

  • 30% reduction in campus energy use by 2012
  • 50% reduction in campus energy use by 2015
  • 25% of campus energy supplied by renewable sources by 2020
  • Energy and water self-sufficiency for the campus by 2050

The University and the electric company formed a partnership to work toward these goals. Saunders Hall, a seven-story building which houses the social science departments, was chosen as a pilot project to implement projects on a trial basis which could then be "rolled out" across the entire campus. Two electric meters were installed in the building to establish a baseline demand and measure the impact of any energy conservation projects.

The Public Policy Center on the 7th floor of Saunders launched the Sustainable Saunders Initiative in early 2007, and a student group called Help Us Bridge (HUB) was formed. In the spring of 2007 the Public Policy Center surveyed all the occupants of Saunders Hall regarding their energy use. (This also served as a behavior modification tool for encouraging people to turn off their computers at night and to take the stairs more often.) By fortunate coincidence, according to Sustainable Saunders student coordinator Shanah Trevenna, "90% of the building's energy was used for lighting and air conditioning while the top two complaints by residents were that the lights were too bright and the temperature too cold." Thus it was logical to begin with lighting and air conditioning projects.

There were many more fluorescent lights than were needed. Over 2,100 bulbs were removed, for an energy savings of 107,434 kilowatt-hours (kwh) per year. An additional 42,330 kwh/year are being saved due to the replacement of incandescent bulbs with fluorescent ones.

Forty-five percent of Saunders offices have individual air conditioners, but the rest are subject to a centralized system which, unfortunately, is permanently set to "CLO 1" - a temperature which may be appropriate for people in business suits, but not for Hawaiian students. Someday that system may be replaced, but in the meantime an air conditioning shutdown project has yielded great savings. Whereas the air conditioning was previously always on, now it is turned off from 9:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m., 7 days a week. The resulting savings are estimated at 411,720 kwh per year. Research is being conducted on whether the shutdown hours could be expanded on weekends.

Together these simple no-cost projects have reduced Saunders Hall's electricity use by over 24%, which in 2008 prices translates into a savings of about $150,000 per year. HUB received a letter from the Chancellor's office asking if the group could perform similar energy audits and conservation measures on all the UHM buildings; the response was "not for free." It was proposed that part of the money saved could be devoted to paying the students to perform the audits. That did not happen, but in the 2009 state legislative session a bill was introduced to secure $207,000 per year in state funding for a sustainability internship program which would serve the same purpose, plus prepare students for similar jobs outside the university. With the encouragement of testimony from HUB members, the bill made its way through numerous committees in the state House and Senate. But it was not heard in the Finance Committee before the final deadline, and thus failed.

In addition to the energy conservation measures, five photovoltaic panels with microinverters on each have been installed on the Saunders rooftop, generating an estimated 1,400 kwh per year. Wind tests are currently being conducted, and eventually the Campus Facilities Office will move a donated vertical-axis windmill from the 7th floor lanai to the roof as a testing/education/demonstration project. It is thought the windmill might be able to generate 1 kw of electricity (or 8,760 kwh/year if constantly running).

But the Sustainable Saunders Initiative takes a much more holistic view of sustainability than just energy. At its official Interactive Launch Party on Earth Day (April 20) 2007, Saunders Hall's seven floors were divided into fifteen theme areas, with exhibits and experts on topics such as recycling, composting, bicycling, climate change, energy and water conservation, renewable energy, architectural design, sustainability education, food security, and organic agriculture. Each area was hung with graffiti paper so that the hundreds of students, faculty, staff, experts, and community members in attendance could jot down their own ideas. Results were presented to the State of Hawai'i Sustainability Task Force.

In February 2007 HUB began "dumpster diving" to retrieve recyclable materials and to analyze the waste stream. Now there are recycling bins on every floor of Saunders Hall for glass, aluminum and plastic. According to recycling coordinator Tamara Armstrong, this has resulted in a 70% reduction of bottles in the dumpsters. On the ground floor there are also 10 bins for paper and one for cardboard.

Sustainable Saunders also obtained donations of low-flow water fixtures and a waterless urinal, which were installed by the Campus Facilities Office on Saunders' 6th floor. One of the faucets even has a small turbine, so that water flowing down the drain generates enough electricity to power its sensor. Shanah Trevenna calculated that an expansion of the retrofit throughout the building could save enough water per year to fill over four Olympic-sized swimming pools, and would pay for itself in under 5 years.

The group also built picnic tables from recycled plastic lumber for the Saunders courtyard.

Three teams meet weekly: HUB itself, the Energy Team, and the Events team. I attended one meeting of HUB and found the room filled to capacity with very enthusiastic students. Three of them had gone to the "Power Shift" event in Washington, DC, sponsored by the Blue Planet Foundation. They reported on what they learned in the areas of policy, science, and organizing, as well as what other colleges across the country have been doing to promote sustainability. "We're kind of behind," said one. Other business included discussion of whether HUB should become an official chartered student organization instead of a registered independent organization.

The Energy Team hosted a workshop series on some very technical topics, with experts discussing various energy systems as well as financing and lease options. The Events Team was mainly busy with Sustainable Saunders' third annual Earth Day celebration. It was a big success, with 100 booths of eco-friendly products, services, information, and food, as well as a concert in the amphitheater. Events like this create a "big buzz" for motivating as well as educating the broader community, says Tamara Armstrong.

As for the idea of "rolling out" Saunders energy initiatives across the campus, some students from the Sea Grant College Program have taken up energy auditing, and the Facilities Management Office has become quite diligent in negotiating and implementing "energy scheduling initiatives" (i.e., air conditioning shutdowns) in addition to its regularly scheduled upgrades. As of October 2008, eight buildings had evening air conditioning shutdowns for an estimated savings of 1,900,000 kwh and $350,000 per year; five others were pending for 2,900,000 kwh and $536,000. Proposed weekend and holiday shutdowns in 48 buildings across the campus might amount to an additional annual savings of almost $4,000,000. The problem, according to mechanical engineer Blake Araki, is that the occupants who readily agree to air conditioning shutdowns are not in the biggest energy-using buildings. Many are concerned about mold or highly sensitive computers or scientific equipment; and some scientists who bring large research grants to the university feel they are entitled to 24-hour air conditioning.

The Sustainable Saunders idea also caught on at the East-West Center, a research institution across the street from the UHM campus. Sustainable EWC has implemented some of the same measures, as well as an organic garden.

Outside the university, HUB members with experience in energy auditing have been hired by the Coast Guard and an art museum, with several other prospects in sight. A recent newspaper article headlined "Hire a Student for Green Help" touts the Sustainable Saunders interns' past achievements and mentions that the "cost of a consultation ranges from $200 for a basic home assessment to about $2,000 for a commercial assessment."

Projects for the future (besides installing the windmill) include various 2009 Summer Session courses, workshops, and lectures on sustainability (including Sustainability 101 by Shanah Trevenna). For the fall, an exciting energy conservation competition is planned by the Public Policy Center among the seven floors of Saunders with the social sciences (anthropology, geography, economics, sociology, political science, etc.) keeping their eyes on newly installed meters on each floor. Also in the works is a program of mentoring K-12 schools to do their own energy audits.

What made Sustainable Saunders so successful is described in every article and interview as the enthusiasm, passion, energy, and commitment of the students. Often mentioned as well are the management and outreach/public relations skills of coordinator Shanah Trevenna. Interested students are immediately accepted and given real projects and opportunities to make a difference. In the words of Jennifer Milholen:

When I decided to move from Kauai to Honolulu I started doing general google searches of organizations in Honolulu that were doing wide-reaching work in sustainability. I knew that I wanted to get involved and have a tangible impact. Sustainable Saunders at UHM was a search result that came up over and over again, so I sent a simple email to Shannah who was the coordinator and was told that I was welcome at all of the meetings for all of the sustainability teams. Shannah immediately made me feel welcome and able. I was given tasks and objectives right off the bat. I started participating in projects for the events and energy teams that I could tell were necessary and timely. I helped "dumpster dive" for the campus eatery waste audit. The data from those dives will be used to justify the sole use of biodegradable containers and cutlery on campus eateries. I also was asked to do extensive research on the potential for industrial size composters and biodegraders on campus. For the first time I participated in the legislative process and testified in front of a Senate panel on the potential benefits of the Sustainable Saunders Internship Program Bill. That was an amazing experience. I was also able to help with the initial installation of solar panels on the roof of Saunders Hall. Currently, I have an active hand as the Volunteer Coordinator and Assistant Logistics Coordinator for UH Manoa's Sustainability Festival 2009. This has all taken place in a few short months. I went from having no experience in sustainability to having several wonderful ones. Being a part of the Sustainable Saunders group has played an integral part in my journey toward becoming an avid supporter and activist for a sustainable human society and culture. I plan to continue working with this group for as long as possible. Shannah leads an amazing group of motivated and creative students who I know will do incredible things for the UHM campus and Hawaii.

Vanuatu - Coconut Oil as an Alternative Fuel

This is a pilot project initiated by a local entrepreneur, so this case demonstrates potential rather than results. Similar to the honge tree in India (see South Asia section) it's a variation on the theme of using biodiesel fuel from a local resource with various uses, with projected benefits to rural communities.

Vanuatu is a (relatively) low-income string of 83 islands in the South Pacific, some 1,300 km west of Fiji. 80% of its population is rural. Its main export commodity is coconut, harvested widely here (and in other tropical areas) for its copra (the dried flesh), while its oil is used in food products such as margarine as well as cosmetics, soaps, lotions, etc. The spread of cheaper soy and canola has displaced the coconut market, causing its prices, and therefore incomes in Vanuatu, to fall. Some coconut estates have closed down as a result.

A local entrepreneur named Tony Deamer has successfully developed a way to use coconut fuel in vehicles as an alternative to conventional fuel. Currently Vanuatu is a net importer, with some 9 million US dollars, or 10% of the value of its imports on fuel. Coconut oil could take pressure off the balance-of-payments deficit. Vanuatu is facing serious problems of underemployment and lack of opportunities especially in rural regions. Deamer is also promoting using the opportunities they offer not only for fuel but for other coconut-based products, such as:

  • fiber (known as coir) which can be used for mats, ropes, fabrics, brushes, biodegradable packaging (as alternatives to polystyrene), "green" alternatives to peat
  • the shells can be used for charcoal for fuel or for purifying water and other liquids (much in the same way Japanese "sumi" is/was used in many common household products)
  • oil is useful not only in cars but for cooking, and the residue from pressed oil can be used for animal feed

Like other biodiesels, coconut is cleaner than diesel and burns more slowly. When performance was monitored, the engines running on full or partial coconut oil showed less wear and tear on engines.

A major drawback is that the oil solidifies at 22 degrees celsius; while it is primarily aimed at the domestic market this is not the issue it would be in, say, Canada, but nevertheless temperatures do fall below 22 degrees in Vanuatu, therefore fuel lines need to be fitted with heat exchangers to warm up the fuel, or it must be mixed with conventional diesel. Deamer is currently developing a filtration process that would address this.

Deamer uses coconut oil in five of his own fleet of vehicles for his business, and about 200 minibuses in the city are using some proportion of mixed diesel/coconut fuel in their tanks. There is also experimentation being done on farm machinery.

Other regions of the world are looking to coconut fuel as a source of cheap local fuel, including the Philippines and Nigeria. This illustrates a versatile local resource which offers other products/services/opportunities than biodeisel, and that benefits rural dwellers who are currently off the grid or dependent on imports. But it is still not a very clean energy source, and its large-scale benefits have unresolved questions (such as growing coconut trees would compete with agricultural or forest land).

Potential services/benefits: poverty alleviation, economic opportunities, self-sufficiency, air quality, sense of place

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Zimbabwe - Microhydropower

In Africa, the high costs of extending the national power grid to rural areas means villages resort to low-quality energy sources, for example, single-use batteries or kerosene lamps for lighting (expensive and environmentally unfriendly); for cooking, wood or maize cobs are burned, which can cause potentially fatal indoor air pollution.

In 1992, Zimbabwe suffered a devastating drought, which motivated rural regions to look for ways to improve water security. In the eastern highlands, which border Mozambique, where Shona ethnic peoples live, residents along the Nyamarimbira River had long been seeking solutions to both their water and power problems. Only 15% of the population has access to the power grid. The region does receive high annual rainfall (except during droughts), which means streams flow year round, even in the dry season. But water sources involve long walks (usually by children) on steep or rugged terrain. Teachers said children were spending more time fetching water than studying. Microhydropower was hoped to be an integrated solution to address both needs.

Successful microhydropower (MHP) projects near the Tangwena community inspired them to start their own MHP system. They requested support and technical assistance from the Intermediete Technology Development Group (ITDG), a UK-based non-government organization promoting and developing appropriate technologies in development. ITDG began assessment workshops, and offered technical support for the project, but it was agreed that the project would be locally managed, with elected members of the committee overseeing it.

Smaller in scale than conventional hydropower, MHP uses a low dam from a small river or stream to divert a portion of it into a channel, which runs along the contour of a hill to a tank, which then runs straight downhill to a power station. The water is driven through nozzles which jet the water onto a turbine, to which a generator is connected to convert the mechanical energy into electricity. The electricity is transmitted to houses in two ways: either by a "mini grid" of cables connecting to houses, or through recharging batteries for a fee at a charging station (usually old car batteries). The water is then again available for for irrigation and household use.

The project was completed in 2002, when Zimbabwe was facing fuel shortages, political and social unrest, price escalations, and inflation. The results:

  1. 300 households, 500 pupils and teachers of Tsatse primary school have improved access to electricity.
  2. A community-owned mill, one of the creations of the project, is used to grind maize to make sadza (a staple of the region). This local milling is said to be cost-effective and increases food security.
  3. Increased electricity in the school has benefited not only children but teachers, as previously turnover was high and it was hard to retain teachers for long periods; now teachers report job satisfaction and are staying longer.
  4. Water purification is reducing the incidence of water-borne diseases.
  5. The need to travel long distances for water is eliminated.
  6. 30 hectares of farmland is irrigated, which has raised yields and farmers' incomes, as well as food security, as food can be grown year round.
  7. Predictably, while men dominated the planning and meetings, women were estimated to have contributed 70% of the labor. This is not a quickly addressed issue, but effort has been made by ITDG to give more opportunity for women. Now, there is a female chair, which has helped to gain more active participation and contribution during meetings from women.
  8. Enthusiasm over the results has inspired neighboring Ngurunda and Magadzire to request assistance from ITDG for starting similar projects.

Services or benefits include: sustainable energy source, self-sufficiency, education opportunities, food and water security, social relations, gender relations, regulation of diseases.

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