Small-Scale Renewable Energy in Guatemala, research paper – 2014

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Abstract

Developed countries tend to take access to energy and clean water for granted.  In developing nations, such as many of the Latin American countries, it is a very different story.  Access to electricity is a daily issue for a lot of Guatemalans, as well as for economically disadvantaged people all around the globe.  Guatemala relies on a mix of non-renewable and renewable energy sources to produce its electricity; although a large portion of its energy comes from the burning of firewood.  While no energy, renewable or not, comes without negative effects, renewable energy sources offer a cleaner, more sustainable option, without the polluting aspects of fossil fuels.  In order to meet international standards for access to electricity, there must be a push into more small-scale renewable energy projects.

Small-Scale Renewable Energy in Guatemala

Initiation

Energy Concerns Facing Guatemala

Developed countries tend to take access to energy and clean water for granted.  The average home, in a developed country, has many large appliances that use a lot of energy.  Appliances, such as furnaces, hot water heaters, refrigerators, washing machines, dryers, dishwashers, televisions, and computers all need electricity to do their jobs.  In addition to these large appliances are other devices that use less energy, like microwave ovens, toasters, coffee makers, irons, cellular phones, and lights.  In many homes, these appliances are running at the same time, consuming vast amounts of electricity.  When a person switches on a light, he expects that light to work, while thinking not of how that electricity was created.  When a tap is turned on, it is expected that the water is fresh and clean, without much thought given as to how that water came to be fresh and clean.

In developing nations, such as many of the Latin American countries, it is a very different story.  For instance, in Guatemala, 82% of the population has access to electricity (The World Bank, 2014, see table), although that may be much lower in remote areas.  A typical home in rural Guatemala uses a lot less energy than a home in a developed nation.  The average rural Guatemalan does not have a dishwasher, a washing machine, a television, or a microwave oven.  They wash their dishes with one bucket of water, and their clothes are washed in a nearby river or lake.  When they cook their food, propane or wood is used as a fuel, and kerosene is used to light their homes.  When the sun goes down, productivity in the house usually stops as well, as there is no light to work by or study by.  It is not hard to imagine that the single most important asset to an average Guatemalan is their mobile phone, used for work and to keep in touch with loved ones.  Since they do not have electricity, some villagers may have to walk an hour or two just to charge their phones.

Access to electricity is a daily issue for a lot of Guatemalans, as well as for economically disadvantaged people all around the globe.  Governments tend to think big, as in building a new power plant or stretching the grid out to where the electricity is needed.  However, in a lot of these countries, even if the government transfers electricity to the remote areas, the residents are too poor to afford the service.  Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) do what they can, when they can, to better the lives of the people of these poorer regions.  All too often, they seemed to be focused on one technology or service, or they run out of financial backing.  The Sustainable Energy for All initiative (2013) is an international partnership aimed at universal energy for all by 2030.  In order to achieve this goal, new strategies at overcoming the energy imbalance in developing nations must be developed.  Incorporating small-scale renewable energy projects to back up and eventually power remote areas of the globe is necessary to meet the goal of energy for all by 2030 (para. 3).  Not only will these projects increase access to electricity, they will also begin to end the World’s reliance on harmful, dirty energy sources.  At the present time, traditional, non-renewable energy is what powers most of Guatemala, as well as developing nations around the World.

Energy Sources Currently Being Used in Guatemala

            Guatemala relies on a mix of non-renewable and renewable energy sources to produce their electricity, ranging from firewood, to hydropower and oil, among other sources.  According to a report by the British Embassy (2012), “approximately 63% of the energy used in Guatemala is by burning firewood” (p 3).  Burning wood poses a number of problems, including promoting rapid deforestation, generating the release of hydrocarbons into the environment and the continued use of unreliable, inefficient, and unsafe cook stoves.  Roughly 50% of the population of Guatemala is located in rural areas (Trading Economics, 2013 see table).  For residents in these less populated areas, firewood is relied upon due to the scarcity of electricity.  If and when these areas are connected to the grid, most residents would not be able to afford the rates. 

            Coal, oil, and natural gas represent traditional forms of energy, known as fossil fuels.  These energy sources have been used to power the world for generations.  Their use was based on the sense that they were abundant and relatively inexpensive to acquire and process.  Although it may seem that the World has an endless supply of oil or natural gas, because they will last a lifetime, it is not actually so.  The United States Energy Information Administration (U.S. EIA), estimates that at the current rate of production and consumption, the World has a little over 120 years’ worth of coal that we know we have left (U.S. EIA, 2013, para. 11).  The picture is even darker for oil and natural gas.  British Petroleum estimated that there was enough oil and natural gas to meet the world’s needs for just over 100 years combined (BP, 2012a, para. 1; BP, 2012b, para. 1).  Coal, oil and natural gas took millions of years to produce (U.S. Department of Energy, 2013, para. 3).  It will take the Earth millions and millions of years to replace what has been taken.  In order to power the present and the future, humans must look to energy sources that recharge at a faster rate.

Renewable Energy

Definition

Renewable energy, as defined by the United States EIA (2014) is “an energy source that is regenerative or virtually inexhaustible” (para. 1).  While no energy, renewable or not, comes without negative effects, renewable energy sources offer a cleaner, more sustainable option, without the polluting aspects of fossil fuels.  Examples of renewable energy sources are hydropower, biofuel, wind and solar.  These resources are re-generated in far shorter cycles than traditional, non-renewable options.  Renewable energy still lags behind traditional energy sources as far as use, although it is steadily climbing, amounting to one fifth of the world’s power (Dolezal, Majano, Ochs, Palencia, 2013, p. 15).  One under-reported aspect of fossil fuel energy use is the topic of externalities.  Externalities are the unforeseen, hidden costs of a particular product, which could include carbon emissions, spills, and cleanup costs.  For instance, even though gasoline priced at say, $5.00 per gallon would seem very expensive, however the true price with externalities included should be much more than that.

Renewable Energy Use in Guatemala

Hydropower is most commonly seen in the form of dams on rivers.  More recent technological advancements have opened up in electricity being generated by waves and tides, although not in Guatemala.  The country currently has approximately twenty river-based, hydroelectric dams, generating roughly 950 Megawatts (MW) of power, accounting for 33% of the country’s output (Renewable Facts, 2011, see table).  One positive aspect of hydropower is that it is relatively reliable; rivers rarely run out of water, although they may lose efficiency when experiencing a drought.  However, hydropower is looked upon with fear and uncertainty as there is a history of land grabbing, violence and forced re-locations associated with the industry in Guatemala.  Over the course of two years leading up to the construction of the Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, over 400 Mayans were murdered in clashes with the government (Guatemala Human Rights Commission, 2011, para 6), and many more were displaced.  Large-scale hydro dam projects have been very difficult to build due to these issues.  A few small and medium-sized hydro dams have been constructed in recent years.  A more recent, and significantly less destructive, development in hydropower has been the introduction of micro-hydropower.  In the micro-hydropower process, a small amount of water is diverted from a river to power turbines to generate electricity.  The water is then returned to the river.  Micro-hydropower is an option for villages in remote areas that are off of the national grid and have access to rivers.

Guatemala’s sugarcane industry contributes to the energy picture in the form of a biomass called bagasse.  Bagasse is a fibrous pulp produced during the sugar process.  What used to be a waste product is now a viable option for generating electricity up to 300 MW per year.  In his report on alternative energy in Guatemala, Koberle (2012) states that during harvest season sugar mills can generate up to a quarter of the nation’s electricity (p. 58).  Due to technological advancements, this process should only become more efficient and streamlined in the future.  Bagasse can also be converted into ethanol to power automobiles, equipment and machinery.  The potential of ethanol from sugar cane is well documented.  In the early part of the 20th Century, Henry Ford, saw the future of oil coming to an end at some point.  He researched the possibility of creating ethanol alcohol for commercial use, but ran into opposition from the oil industry (Shere, 2013, p. 15-18).  Brazil has been producing ethanol made from sugar cane for decades and have made it a viable, reliable source of renewable energy.

The sector of renewable energy in Guatemala that is sorely lacking is in the area of wind and solar power.  If one were to be transported to the shore of Lake Atitlan, a beautiful lake in central Guatemala, he would notice the ample amount of sunlight washing down on the region.  During the winter months, he would also feel the strong north wind blowing across the lake for a few hours every day.  He would then be shocked to see not one solar panel or wind turbine, despite enormous potential of these untapped resources.  In the Worldwatch Institute’s 2013 report on renewable energy in Central America, the authors estimate that “most Central American countries use less than 1% of their wind potential and have 2-3 times more solar radiation than Germany and Italy, two of the World’s leaders in solar technology” (Dolezal, Majano, Ochs, Palencia, 2013, p. 10).  Wind and solar power are not completely reliable, due to the possibility of windless or cloudy days.  Two large-scale wind farms are in production in the country that will generate an estimated 71 MW of electricity (Koberle, 2012, p. 54).  Wind is the cheapest of the renewable energy options, and it is possible that owners can recoup their investment in just a decade.  One advantage of wind and solar, as opposed to hydro and geothermal, is their ability to be deployed in remote locations on a small scale.  With a combination of just a few solar panels and wind turbines, a small isolated village can have the benefit of electricity.  Figure one (see Appendix) is a Solar and Wind Energy Resource Assessment (SWERA) map maintained by the United States Department of Energy National Renewable Energy Laboratory (2004), demonstrating the potential of wind power in different regions of Central America.

The renewable energy with the least amount of negative side effects is the same energy source that Guatemala has an abundance of, if still relatively untapped.  It is geothermal energy, which involves drilling wells deep underground and using the Earth’s heat to turn turbines to produce electricity.  Geothermal energy, along with hydropower, has been proven to be the most reliable of renewable resources, in contrast to other options, such as wind and solar power.  These sources’ reliability is due to the premise that the Earth will continue to generate heat, and rivers, for the most part, will continue to run.  Guatemala is just starting to ramp up production of geothermal technology; although it is still in the early stages of development.  With seven of the country’s volcanoes being active, the region should generate an abundant level of geothermal energy (About, 2014, para. 2).  A major negative aspect of geothermal as well as hydropower is that they are expensive to start up and involve potentially massive infrastructure needs.  A possibility exists of polluting or contaminating thermal wells if the processes are not handled properly.  Every country does not have the same energy needs.

Renewable Energy Sources Best Suited for Small-Scale Use in Guatemala

The challenge when dealing with access to electricity in any developing nation is how to provide services to people in remote locations as well as in urban areas.  Cities tend to receive first choice when it comes to most services, including electricity.  An urban center receiving first priority is a natural fact of life, as they are more populated than rural areas.  Utility companies do not want to take time and energy to route transmission lines out to a community that cannot afford the service.

If a small village of say, two hundred people, cannot afford to pay for access to the commercial electricity grid, then what do they use to heat with?  They burn wood, kerosene, or propane; all potentially causing health concerns not to mention, fire hazards, especially when used inside a structure.  These options will continue to be used because there are no other options, unless they decide to move to an urban area or to another country altogether.  In most villages that are remote and are not hooked up to the electrical grid, when the sun goes down, productivity is affected in many ways.  Besides children not being able to read or study, mothers and fathers cannot work or cook, and travel becomes limited.  All of these factors affect how much income a family can earn, which keeps these families in the lower reaches of society for generations.  What if these residents could tap in the abundant, relatively inexpensive resources that their climate provides?  In a short video at Time.com, Rufino Pablo Jeronimo, from Chenuwitz, Guatemala explains how his life has changed since he bought a small solar panel for his home.  He is now able to work a second job at night, making clothes.  His wife can cook food without the use of costly, dirty kerosene and his children can work on their reading skills.  The extra income helps his family.  Half of the cost of the solar kit is shared with Cause Canada, a Christian Aid Organization (Jamali, n.d).

Residents of such villages cannot wait for the government to bring the grid to them; they have to create their own grid.  The government or utility company may never reach these isolated areas, not to mention remote areas in other developing nations, especially in Latin America.  Geothermal and hydropower are powerful, renewable resources, but their price tag would be far greater than traditional electricity.  These communities will need to come together and construct small-scale renewable energy farms, combining different energies, concepts, and technologies.  The optimal resources for such applications would depend on the climate of the specific region where it is placed.  These energies would surely be a mix of wind, solar and, if available, micro-hydropower.

The possibility of wind and solar power on a small scale is extraordinary.  Wind turbines come in a multitude of sizes, built specifically for different purposes and different wind patterns.  The smaller wind turbines are built specifically to be used off of grids, to power smaller equipment or applications.  For hundreds of years, farmers all over the world have been using small windmills to power their irrigation systems.  Another possibility of wind power is their ability to efficiently generate so much energy, that the excess can be sold back to utility companies or traded to other communities in return for needed goods or services.  Another positive for wind is the potential, if installed effectively, to create more energy per dollar than other renewable resources (Foster, 2011, para. 2).  The price of solar photovoltaic panels is steadily declining per kilowatt-hour, coming into the realm of affordability for a community, if they were to pool their resources, thereby lessening the amount each member had to pay in.

Economic Possibilities

The one aspect of the renewable energy market that seems to be holding back the entire sector is cost.  No one will deny that electricity cannot be made from harnessing energy from the sun, from the wind or from moving water.  These technologies work.  They have worked for hundreds, even thousands, of years.  The Romans lined the sides of buildings facing the Sun with clays or glass that would absorb heat in the winter.  In his book on renewable energy, Shere (2013) details the story of Augustin Mouchot, who built solar powered engines in the middle of the 19th Century.  He even displayed an ice machine powered by the Sun at the Universal Exposition in Paris, in 1878, attracting the attention of passersby.  The problem with Mouchot’s inventions was that they could not compete with coal, which was just starting to come into widespread use (p. 99-101).  The fundamental issue with most large-scale renewable energy technologies today is still that they cost too much.  Conversely, small-scale renewable energy projects do not have to cost a lot.  They are modular and adaptable, letting users pick and choose the size and type of energy source the user sees fit.

Renewable Energy Generation Investment

If members of a small region, or community were to decide to set up a renewable energy farm, several types of policies exist that they could use to promote and sustain that project.  If a user has solar panels on her roof and she generates a certain amount of energy during the day, what happens at night, when there is no Sun.  A need exists for people to access energy when they cannot generate it.  Users have several different ways to ease the financial burden and gain access to renewable energy.  These policies and services have a host of different names: feed-in-tariff, net metering, and purchase power agreements.  While they differ slightly in name and definition, they are basically the same thing.  They allow a single user to sell her energy back to a provider when she creates excess amounts, or gains credits for later use  (U.S. Department of Energy, 2011, para. 2).  These energy credits would roll over into the next month.

Figure two (see Appendix) illustrates how Feed-in-tariffs work.  Allowing communities to create their own energy would empower the citizens, making them feel like a part of the process.  Selling their energy back to the utility company would help the residents to accumulate a small amount of wealth in the process.  Programs such as these are starting to appear in countries throughout in Latin America as well as Guatemala (Ochs, 2013, para. 11).  It is necessary to tailor such programs to work in a certain area ensuring that the people feel a part of the process and are not pandered or taken advantage of.  Private investments are an option for areas that are well connected or have deep pockets.  Some smaller companies have tapped into the recent development of crowd sourcing, with websites such as kickstarter.com and indieagogo.com.  These sites offer startups with an appropriate and effective technology or concept, the ability to gain capital and keep their patrons in the loop, so they feel like a part of the operation.  Whether or not a non-governmental organization, or a for-profit company decides to design and construct a renewable energy product, whether it is wind, solar or hydro, a few problems can arise.

Implementation

When outsiders approach a village with the new cure to end all cures, there is an understandable level of distrust.  Residents of these villages do not want to be taken advantage of and they also do not want to be given charity.  The highest degree of sensitivity needs to placed on what the members of the communities wants and desires are.  Each culture is different and within each culture are many sub-cultures, often with differing viewpoints.  What works well and is accepted in a city might not be what works best or is accepted in a rural part of a country.  Also, what might work well in one village may not work in the next village down the road.  A number of factors may affect this dynamic, whether it is cultural, historical, or religious in nature, or because of the topography of the region demands one technology over another.  Obviously, if one does not have access to a river or creek nearby, then hydropower or even micro hydropower may not be an option.  Coordinating organizations and local residents would need to come together and agree on what would work for their area.  Also, a framework would need to be put in place for maintaining and supporting whatever project is implemented.  Once the organizers, designers, and builders leave, it will be up to the members of the community to take care of the system.  With this in mind, there needs to be appropriate level of training, so the wind turbine or solar farm, for instance, continues to function properly and provide affordable energy.  The human component is the single-most important factor in any renewable energy project.              Foster (2011) insists local communities must be involved in these projects, so they can be trained in how to operate and repair the equipment.  More importantly, they will feel like they are a part of the solution in their local area (para. 8).  In Guatemala, as with most of Central America, many NGOs exist, assisting and empowering the under-served, native population.  Some of these organizations are foreign-based, bringing technology and ideas from developed nations, while others are native Guatemalan, incorporating and understanding local customs and values.  Along with these organizations are newer, smaller companies, seeking to provide a better life, while at the same time looking to make a profitable business out of their ideas, practices, or technologies.

 Non-Governmental Organizations and Startups

            The Appropriate Technology Collective (ATC) is a group of like-minded engineers, architects, designers, and volunteers, organized by several American universities.  Appropriate technology is a good way to describe the ATC.  The collective is tasked with designing, building, and implementing products and technologies that will enhance the everyday life of low-income peoples in Latin America.  The solutions the ATC designs must be low-cost and sourced from local, available materials, which can be repaired with the same requirements.  Designing and building a product in the United States and shipping it down to Guatemala may sound feasible in theory, but it would be problematic. When the time came to replace parts on a wind turbine, for instance, a typical Guatemalan would not have the time to wait for a replacement, nor the money to buy it.  The Guatemalans working on the turbine would accumulate the knowledge on not only building, but also maintaining the equipment.  He could then pass on his knowledge of the building process and possible problems to friends or family living in other parts of the country.  In turn, they could use that knowledge to build their own solutions, using materials sourced in their region.  For example, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) tubing may be available certain parts of the country, but it may be hard to come by in rural areas.  The builders in that area would then need to source a different material for tubing.

The overall collaborative nature of the ATC is demonstrated by the design library section of their website, where they post links to schematics of past projects.  John Barrie, executive director of the Appropriate Design Collaborative, states these designs have been downloaded over ten thousand times and that the people using them changed nearly all of designs in some way (personal communication, April, 9 2014).  He then explains that not only does the Collaborative design projects, but it also trains individuals in the key areas of electricity, circuits, and solar power.  For instance Mayan women have been trained and in turn started a woman-owned solar business in Xela.  An aspect that cannot be understated is that the projects the ATC designs must be robust and environmentally responsible.  Building products that would break down and degrade would just compound the problem of overfilled landfills and increase the amount of chemicals and waste by-products leaching into the environment.

Fundacion Solar (FS, 2014) is a Guatemala-based NGO, with the slogan “renewable energy, clean by nature”.  The intention of FS is to provide training and assistance to low income populations, so that they can better themselves in their own environmentally responsible way, offering training in productive uses of environmental practices, water resources management, as well as leadership training (paras. 1–7).  In 2007, the organization assisted the village of Chel, Guatemala, in building a micro-hydropower project that generates just over 150 kilowatts.  Members from each family in the community donated labor in exchange for access to the system.  Over 400 homes took part in the project and gained access to the system (Dolezal, Majano, Ochs, Palencia, 2013, p. 24).  In a similar way to how the ATC constructs their projects, FS also works with the residents of a village or region and asks what they want, instead of building unwanted, unnecessary structures and wasting much-needed time and money.

In addition to non-governmental organizations, smaller, more adaptable companies are starting to offer their services in the renewable energy sector in Guatemala, as well as in developing nations around the World.  These startups tend to be run by younger, well-educated Guatemalans looking to use what they have learned to help their fellow citizens.  One such company is Quetsol (2010), based in Guatemala City, the national capital, started by Manuel Aguilar.  Aguilar studied astrophysics at Harvard University before starting a macro hedge fund.  He eventually felt a calling to move back to his home country and try to make a difference.  Quetsol designs and builds small, affordable solar panel kits that come with lights and connections to power mobile phones (video file).  Quetsol incorporates a social media aspect combined a with crowd funding component to generate financial backing and interest.  For instance, when sponsors donate money, they can have their company or corporation placed directly on the solar kits.  So far, the company has illuminated over four thousand homes since the company started in 2009 (Quetsol, 2014, What is Quetsol?).  Quetsol continues to power and empower the Guatemalan people through its unique and genuine approach to renewable energy production.

Realization

            Why do some people in developing countries have access to electricity and and others do not?  Electricity should not be only for the rich or elite.  Gaining access to electricity is an absolute requirement for everyone on the planet.  To keep some people in the dark while others bask in the glow of incandescent lighting is a sad situation for any country to face.  In nations where there is an overabundance of wind, sun and rain, neglecting these abundant energy sources is disappointing.

Large power plants and dirty fuels are the way of the past.  These resources were needed in the past but technology has advanced to the point where they are obsolete.  Renewable energy has proven to be able to help more people with less time, money, and effort spent.  Transitioning to a renewable energy-based economy will take time but the benefits outweigh the negatives.  Small communities, villages, neighborhoods, or towns far from the central part of a country, off of the grid, can be powered with small-scale energy farms.  These farms should be a mix of technologies including wind and solar, adapted to the environment where it is being installed.  A combination of wind and solar can be constructed with a few highly skilled, knowledgeable technicians, and with the help of less knowledgeable and skilled, but motivated residents. A wind turbine and a few solar panels could go a long way to help people in regions of the world where there is a lack of electricity.  Instead of spending hours a day walking to charge a phone, citizens can be working or learning or just being with friends and family.  The electricity brought into these homes will help people to make extra money at night and to help children read, instead of being in total darkness.

In designing renewable energy projects that are downsized to fit specific size and financial requirements, there are many obstacles that range from cultural and language barriers to monetary and time constraints.  Once these issues are understood and then integrated into the project, they can then be seen as a positive aspect of the process.  When people come together and share ideas and experiences, the possibilities for redesigning and reconceptualizing are endless.  In order to provide environmentally friendly energy for all by 2030, fresh ideas and concepts will need to come to the forefront.

Appendix

Figure 1: Guatemala Solar and Wind Resource Assessment
(click link above)

Source: United States Department of Energy National Renewable Energy Laboratory. (2005,

February 14). Guatemala 50 m Wind Power. Retreived from http://www.nrel.gov/wind/pdfs/guatemala.pdf.

Figure 2: Feed-In-Tariffs: How They Work
(click link above)

Source: Audubon Magazine. (2009). Feed in tariffs: How they work. Retrieved from http://archive.audubonmagazine.org/features0903/pdfs/climateChange-tariffs.pdf

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