Off the grid: Promoting renewables in rural communities

Filed Under: EARTH Stories
Date: March 4th, 2014
Bert Kohlmann (far right) and Mildred Linkimer (second from right) pose with a solar-powered car developed by EARTH students together with CIDER.

Bert Kohlmann (far right) and Mildred Linkimer (second from right) pose with a solar-powered car developed by EARTH students together with CIDER.

Although it is one of the newest facilities on EARTH University’s Guácimo campus, the Center for Research and Development in Renewable Energies (known by its Spanish acronym as CIDER), has already provided seminars and hands-on training for hundreds of students, farmers, community leaders, bankers, lawmakers and renewable energy professionals from around the world. Built in 2011 as part of the Renewable Energies at EARTH (REN@EARTH) program financed by the German government, the Center is dedicated to bringing cutting edge renewable energy technology to rural communities throughout Central America.

EARTH professor and director of CIDER Dr. Bert Kohlmann explains, “This is the first center of its kind in Central America and on top of that, we are one of the very few units in the whole world that has equipment for teaching the whole breadth of renewable energy. Concentrated in this small building, we have equipment for nearly everything.”

It turns out, “nearly everything” is quite a lot: the Center has equipment for biomass, biogas, biofuel, solar thermal energy, photovoltaic, wind and water power, geothermal energy, storage technologies and hydrogen technologies.  The CIDER team is also continually searching for the latest innovations to add to their programs.

But Dr. Kohlmann, who has guided the project since its inception, is careful to reinforce the true purpose of the equipment and who it should be benefitting. “Big stuff is not our field of work; we are not competing with utility companies. We are here to help farmers in developing countries by providing low-cost technology that is also high-quality.”

“We take it for granted that everyone knows what a solar panel is, for example, but the reality is that many people have no idea that it is even possible,” says Dr. Kohlmann.

Having the best equipment is only the half the battle; however, as teaching technicians how to effectively communicate with rural communities and identify their needs is just as important as knowing how to install a solar panel. “People are used to doing what they have always done, so that is also something very important that we teach at the Center: how to explain to someone who has no prior knowledge of renewable energies why they should adopt a new technology,” explains Dr. Kohlmann.

For Dr. Mildred Linkimer, administrator at CIDER, the best way to describe how renewable energy works is sometimes the simplest way. “It’s like magic,” she explains. “What we are doing is taking energy sources from nature–wind, water and the sun–and transforming them into electricity. For someone who has never heard about this technology, it can really be exciting.” It was this sense of magic and wonder that drew her into renewable energies in the first place, even though she is an agronomist by training. After taking courses at the Renewable Energies Academy (RENAC) in Berlin and Solar Energy International, she now works full-time at CIDER and enjoys combining her love of renewable technologies, with that of working with students and communities.

She explains, “Five watts of electricity is nothing for us, but for a rural family it can make all the difference in the world. The children that have to work in the field all day now have a few hours of light in the evening to do their homework. Their mothers can run their electric sewing machines and earn a bit more income to feed their family. There are endless advantages, really.”

Students gain hands-on experience in hydraulic energy during a CIDER course.

Students gain hands-on experience in hydraulic energy during a CIDER course.

Despite being only two years old, CIDER is growing.  One of their new projects is with the Costa Rica United States of America Foundation (CRUSA).  After the inauguration of the new Costa Rican government in May 2014, congressmen, ministry officials, advisors and bankers from the new administration will come to CIDER for a series of seminars to better understand renewable energy and how supporting these projects can have a positive impact on the nation.

CIDER is also training government decision makers and community leaders from Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama with funding from the Norwegian government.

Looking towards the future, Dr. Kohlmann hopes that “CIDER will become a benchmark for other renewable energy centers in Central America and beyond.”

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