Air Date: Week of February 11, 2000
In Central America, more and more people are turning to solar power to bring electricity to their rural villages. Ingrid Lobet reports from Honduras.
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Americans are notoriously pressed for time. But think what life would be like if you had to accomplish all your day's work before the sun went down. All the food cooked, kids bathed, clothes washed. These are challenges that two billion people face each day. One-third of the world's population has no access to electric light. But in the Central American nation of Honduras, many people aren't waiting to get connected to the power grid. That's because Honduras is becoming a hothouse for solar solutions. Ingrid Lobet has our story.
LOBET: If you've ever taken electricity for granted, imagine this. A dimly-lit garage stacked with car batteries. A layer of sulfuric acid coats the floor.
LOBET: This is a battery recharging station, Baterías Electra . It's where rural Hondurans come as often as once every week to juice up the batteries that power their household televisions and radios. General Manager Francisco García says the trip here isn't easy.
GARCIA: [speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: They come from two or three hours away, and they have to walk part of the way carrying a 50- to 80-pound battery. And I've seen women doing it. I see one woman here regularly who travels for half an hour outside of town. She brings it in on her lap a bus, and then she has to carry it on her shoulder another 20 minutes to get home.
(Humming stops; fade to barking dogs, footfalls)
LOBET: People make that trip from villages like this one. Santa Cruz Minas in northwestern Honduras. It's an area where the wealthy grow coffee and the rest, like everywhere in Central America, grow corn and beans.
On this afternoon a carpet of corn is drying on a plastic tarp here, creating a makeshift sandbox for two young boys. Nearby is a middle-class concrete block home belonging to Santos Manegas. She says her village has always been dark.
MANEGAS: Todo una vida!![speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: Ever since God made rain, they've been promising they were going to bring light out here. But they never have. Now they're saying they'll have it here by March. But I'll believe it when I see it.
LOBET: Whether or not wires ever extend to Las Minas matters a lot less to Ms. Manegas and her family now. They can watch television, news, or listen to music on the radio, without thinking about lugging their battery to the city. Just beside their house is a metal pole supporting a solar panel. It looks a bit like a hand raising a torch. Ms. Manegas says she's happy with the new system.
MANEGAS: [speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: We've never had the slightest problem. We've never been without lights, even when we had four days without sun. On New Year's Eve when we stayed up late, I said I doubt that battery is going to last. But it did. That's when I thought this thing really is worth it.
LOBET: Solar panels, known as photovoltaics, have been popping up all over Honduras. They are roughly the size of a small refrigerator door, slanted upward toward the sun. There is a grid of blue silicon beneath a pane of glass. When sunlight hits the panel streams of electrons pulse toward a storage battery, which is connected to wires and switches inside the home. Patricia Balde Ramos and her mother, Herlinda Rivera , remember when they first saw solar panels at work.
BALDERAMOS: [speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: I saw the other little store across the street, and you couldn't miss it. It was all lit up, and it looked so nice. And I called my mother and said, "They're going around putting in solar panels here." I said, "Mama, how would you feel about paying this bill?" And she said, "Okay." And once we had it, we were really happy with it, because at night the house looks so much better all lit up.
RIVERA: [speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: Having lights, it's like having life. Sometimes you would say to yourself, Puchica, Jeez , I'm so sick of sitting here in the dark and especially when you're older like me and your eyesight isn't what it was. With these lights, I can see more clearly.
LOBET: Photovoltaic energy is ideal for small-scale projects in out of the way places like Santa Crus Minas, partly because the panels need little maintenance and can last up to 30 years. The equipment may seem like an impossible investment for a Honduran family, but surprisingly, the economics of solar seem to work here. John Rogers is vice president of Soluz Incorporated, a U.S.-based firm that's one of the biggest solar concerns in Central America. He says the cost of energy in developing countries can be so high that solar makes sense.
ROGERS: We've got customers who, unlike listeners to this program, who are probably paying ten cents a kilowatt hour for their electricity, our customers are paying maybe $30 to $60 a kilowatt hour for energy to power their radios using dry cell batteries. And they're using kerosene for lighting, and they're using those car batteries for television viewing. If you look at rural areas, rural customers in developing countries, most of them have very small energy needs. And basically, what we're saying is, we can provide them with a service that is a lot cleaner, a lot more efficient, a lot easier to use, a lot safer, and yet is at a cost that is close to what they would have been paying for those other services.
LOBET: Soluz has installed nearly 5,000 photovoltaic systems in Honduras and the Dominican Republic. The company began by selling solar panels outright, but is now expanding by allowing people to rent the equipment and pay a bill of about ten to 20 U.S. dollars per month. That may sound like a lot of money, but again, Mr. Rogers says it's comparable to what many Hondurans are already paying for energy. And he forecasts the cost will drop as more and more households join what's becoming something of a solar electric utility.
ROGERS: We want to be able to go far beyond where we're able to do. Based on what people have been spending, we're estimating that we can reach about 50 percent of the customers in a lot of the markets where we're operating.
LOBET: Soluz is by no means the only solar operation in Honduras. International development groups are funding photovoltaic energy here. Donated solar panels are allowing schools to conduct classes at night, and several health clinics can now safeguard medicines that require constant refrigeration. The hot Honduran sun is even being harnessed to clean up drinking water.
WOMAN: (speaking into microphone) Attention! Attention! Attention! [speaks in Spanish]
LOBET: In Villanueva , a poor hillside neighborhood on the outskirts of Honduran capital Tegucigalpa, community leaders announce the advent of water disinfected thanks to solar energy.
(Woman continues speaking)
LOBET: Isabel Rico and Maria Ruiz say that before the solar powered purifier equipment arrived, dirty drinking water was a costly and sometimes deadly fact of life.
RICO: [speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: If you go to the clinic any day of the week, the majority of the people here have diarrhea and vomiting. The water is contaminated and it makes the kids sick. There's dirty water. Sometimes even mosquitoes breeding. Then you get dengue fever.
RUIZ: [speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: Right now we buy our water from private tanker trucks. The city water department only comes to deliver once a week or once every two weeks. So we have to buy almost all our water from the tankers. Then we have to boil it or chlorinate it, because you have no idea where it comes from.
(Water spills on metal)
LOBET: These women will use the solar purifier to improve community health and provide themselves with a small source of income. They'll sell water to their neighbors for cooking and drinking for one lempira per gallon, the equivalent of one fourteenth of a penny in U.S. money. There are ten purifiers now up and running in Honduras, and they aren't the only examples of how solar energy is helping people to start home-based micro businesses. One of the most common uses for electricity is for blenders at neighborhood juice stands. Diana Soliz , an engineer and general manager of Soluz Honduras, is encouraged.
SOLIZ: [speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: I've been working on photovoltaics here for five years. I'm a witness to the growth of the industry. When I studied renewable energy in 1990 and 1991, I returned to my country and could not find a place to work. Nobody in the country was working with renewable energy. It really began in 1992, '93, '94, when we had a real energy crisis. And now, in January 2000, I believe it has tremendous potential.
(A rooster crows)
LOBET: No one here sees solar energy completely alleviating the need for coal-burning power plants or hydroelectric dams, but for energy experts concerned about the world's growing demand of power, solar projects offer a great hope. People in the Honduran foothills can improve their quality of life without taking a heavy toll on the environment. Patricia Balde Ramos and her mother, Herlinda Rivera .
BALDERAMOS: [speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: We didn't use to have family get-togethers, you know, hanging around talking. Now we do it all the time. We turn on the light outside and talk for two hours.
RIVERA: [speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: You don't want to be talking in the dark. We might as well go to bed. Whereas now, with the light, we sit with all the children and the grandchildren, even the daughters in law. We sit around and shoot the breeze. The kids are happy, tearing around, playing at night. We're doing really well.
LOBET: For Living on Earth, I'm Ingrid Lobet in Santa Cruz Minas, Honduras.
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