Sustained by the Sun
- Central America and Mexico, Costa Rica
In Costa Rica, Peace Corps Volunteer Katie DeWitt worked with her community to use one of their most abundant resources—the sun—to power their local biological reserve. Find out how the newly installed solar panels generated not only power, but also community-wide enthusiasm for renewable energy.
My name is Katie DeWitt, and I served as Peace Corps Volunteer in a small semi-rural community in southern Costa Rica.
The community prides itself on the beauty and cleanliness of its natural setting. It is situated along a river that comes down from the mountains, which is the main source of drinking water for the surrounding district of 90,000 people.
Twenty years ago, a group of concerned citizens got together to discuss the increasing pollution of their natural environment. They decided to establish a biological reserve to address the problem through environmental education, habitat preservation and sustainable development.
Today, visitors from all over the world, the country, and nearby San Isidro come to the reserve to enjoy the hiking trails, picnic by the lagoon and stay overnight in the rustic lodge. Local organizations such as church groups, universities, and government ministries also use the reserve for conferences and meetings. Members of the local community come by on the weekends to enjoy a family day in nature or take advantage of the community computer center.
When the founding members were envisioning the future of the reserve, they always dreamed that it would one day become self-sustaining and energy independent. As renewable energy technologies continued to evolve over the years, this dream became more and more of a possibility.
When I arrived in the community as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I attended a Board of Directors meeting for the group. One member had recently learned about a renewable energy company whose technology blew him away. He explained the integrated system of solar, wind, and hydro-power that they offer, and we began to brainstorm how we could use this at the reserve.
We invited the company, PuraSol, for a visit. We decided that solar panels would be the best first step, both because of the long, sunny days at the reserve and because of their novelty in the region. Solar panels are made of hundreds of cells that are able to absorb the energy emitted from the sun and convert in into electricity.
Our goal was to have the project serve as an educational tool for community members, students, and volunteers who visit the reserve, with the hope that they would be inspired to replicate the project across the country. We also hoped to raise awareness about clean, sustainable ways to generate electricity.
The total cost for the project was about $12,000, which is a lot of money for a non-profit organization in Costa Rica. I committed to raising $10,000 from friends, family and organizations at home in the U.S., if the reserve would come up with the other $2,000 as well as provide the manual labor, transportation and additional materials.
We were excited to learn that ICE, or Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad, the national energy and telecommunications company, had launched a program to support local renewable energy projects. This would allow the reserve to connect directly to the ICE grid, which controls and distributes most of the electricity throughout Costa Rica. We would give any excess energy we produced to the grid, and then would get it back for free in a time when we were consuming more than we produced.
Each solar panel would have its own inverter, which serves as the connection between the solar panels and the local electricity system. The energy would go directly from the inverter to our biological reserve. If the reserve was not going to consume the energy at the moment, it would go to the ICE grid.
With the extra funds we were able to save, we also decided to install a solar water heater. In Costa Rica, most households do not have gas to heat their water. They either take cold showers or install an electric water heater on their showerheads, which consume a lot of energy and result in high electrical bills. At the biological reserve, all of the showers have these electric water heaters for guests who are not used to showering in cold water.
The solar water heater, which is a simpler and cheaper technology than solar panels, would heat and store water for up to 15 showers at a time. It is made of glass tubes where the water is heated and has a tank where the water is stored, and it just needs to be connected directly to the shower pipes to operate. With this addition, we would further lower the reserve's energy usage and showcase a second form of renewable energy technology.
The project was officially inaugurated as part of the biological reserve's annual fair in celebration of International Water Day on March 22nd. This year, the event was called the Water and Alternative Energy Fair in honor of the new installations.
The fair was full of activities, food and music for community members and visitors from all over the county. Purasol had a stand set up next to the solar panel and water heater and gave special workshops on how the technologies worked.
Other local environmental organizations handed out materials on how to conserve energy at home and demonstrated small-scale projects families could implement, such as a solar oven or solar water heater made out of plastic bottles. I was thrilled by the response to the new technologies. The fair generated so much curiosity and excitement that community members continued to ask me more about it the following weeks.
The reserve is already looking into the possibility of installing a water wheel or a wind turbine, with the hope that these technologies can serve as a model for other communities, foster public awareness about renewable energy, and encourage people to be more conscious about their energy consumption.
For me, this project has been one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences of my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer. After seeing the initial success, I feel very confident that it will have a lasting effect on the community and all those who have the chance to visit.