Rural police station with solar PV-powered radio mast.

In rural areas of Nicaragua, infrastructure had been destroyed during the prolonged civil war and revolution.

Empresa de Comunicaciones SA (ECAMI) was founded in 1982 by Luis Lacayo, to supply radio communications equipment to the affected rural areas. Solar photovoltaic (PV) systems were the obvious choice to power the equipment, because there was no mains grid. Many other opportunities for PV were apparent to the ECAMI staff undertaking the radio communications installations, like home lighting, battery-charging, water pumping and refrigeration. Over the years the provision of renewable energy systems became more important than communications and is now the main activity of the company.

One day the kerosene lamp was knocked over and nearly burned our house down. With the PV light you just switch it on and get on with your work.

ECAMI client, El Sauce

The organisation

ECAMI is a family business based in Managua, founded by engineer Luis Lacayo in 1982. It had 28 staff and a turnover of US$1.95 million in 2008. Until recently all funding was from the family, but a loan was received from E+Co in 2008 for setting regional branches. E+Co also buy carbon credits from ECAMI. ECAMI is the local dealer for Kyocera PV equipment, and Kyocera provides a credit facility, which enables the business to undertake increasingly large PV projects.

ECAMI’s solar PV array, Valle Centro.

The technology

How does it work?

The main activity of ECAMI is the supply and installation of solar PV systems in rural areas, mostly solar-home-systems (SHS). An SHS consists of a PV module, which generates electricity from sunlight; a rechargeable battery, which stores electricity so that it can be used during both day and night; a charge controller, which prevents the battery from being over-charged or deep-discharged; lights; wiring and fixtures.

In addition to lighting, households use the systems to power radios and small black-and-white televisions, and also to charge mobile phones. A typical SHS sold by ECAMI uses a 50 Wp PV module and 100Ah battery. Health and community centres and schools use similar systems, though somewhat larger. 

ECAMI has installed larger PV systems, including twelve PV-powered water-pumping systems of between 1 and 2 kWp PV capacity and a a 3.9 kWp PV-powered mini grid for the island of San Fernando, providing power for 11 homes, two small hotels, a museum and gift shop, and a planned health centre. It has also installed a 6.5 kWp PV supply for a mobile phone mast, which has cut the use of a diesel generator from 24 hours a day to four hours, with associated savings in diesel fuel. ECAMI engineers designed the system so that the diesel generator cuts in automatically when there is insufficient power from the PV or rechargeable batteries to run the mast.

In Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, six hotels have been supplied with solar water heating systems and about 150 domestic solar water-heaters have also been installed.

The water we have here comes from wells but it’s not drinkable. We don’t have electricity either – the nearest city is about 25km away. Since the solar panels were installed, we now have drinkable water, we can take proper showers now, we can wash the dishes, wash vegetables – I can shower my children as well. I think that it is very important that we have drinkable water.

Rosa Espinoza

How much does it cost and how do users pay?

A 50 Wp SHS with four lights and a socket costs about US$600 installed, including tax. This is typical for Latin American countries, although about twice the cost of a similar system in India or Bangladesh.

About 50% of ECAMI sales are to NGOs, 30% to private customers and 20% to government programmes. ECAMI does not provide finance, but in some cases works with NGOs, micro financing initiatives (MFIs) and banks to help users arrange grants and loans. Installations are undertaken by ECAMI individual teams, with an engineer and two or three technicians.

Some PV powered systems are grant-funded. The equipment cost of one of the water pump systems was financed by the charity CARE, with the community completing the civil works and taking responsibility for future maintenance, through monthly water bills which pay a maintenance technician. The mini-grid system on the island of San Fernando was grant financed by the World Tourism Federation, with similar community involvement.

Solar photovoltaic panels at an island tourist destination.

How is it manufactured, promoted and maintained?

Most of the PV modules used by ECAMI are made from polycrystalline silicon and produced by Kyocera. A few amorphous silicon modules are used for installations in cloudy areas, because amorphous silicon has relatively better performance in diffuse light. Batteries, charge controllers and inverters are sourced from a number of well-known international companies. Quality is maintained by buying equipment from reputable manufacturers, with certification to international standards. PV modules carry a warranty of achieving at least 80% of their rated efficiency for 20 years and ECAMI offers a one-year warranty on installation. A record is kept of the GPS location and serial number of each PV module used, which helps in quality control.

ECAMI emphasises the importance of good training, both for employees and for the users of the systems, the NGOs and cooperatives. An ECAMI calendar with contact details is left at every installation, so that users can get in touch quickly if anything goes wrong. 

Benefits

ECAMI has installed about 5,000 renewable energy systems over the past ten years. Between 2004 and 2009, a total of 400 kWp of PV capacity has been installed, including about 2,100 SHS; over 400 PV systems for health centres, schools, community buildings and offices in rural areas; 70 systems for telecommunications and 40 for urban houses and tourism. In addition, about 170 solar-water-heating systems have been provided for homes, swimming pools and hotels, and over 40 wind turbines. 

With an average of five people per house, about 10,500 people benefit from the domestic SHS. For health centres and water pumps, around 500 people can benefit from each installation, and typically 200 per school. Assessed in this way, the total number of beneficiaries exceeds 100,000 people.

Esteli's home with solar pv installed on her roof.

Environmental benefits

The use of PV systems in homes and clinics replaces kerosene for lighting. Other systems, like those for the mobile phone mast and island mini-grid, replace diesel-generated electricity.

Such replacement reduces the emission of CO2, but the amount is difficult to quantify because the systems are used in so many different ways. A PV/battery system in the tropics replacing diesel generation saves about 1 tonne/year CO2 per kWp of PV installed. The saving for directly replacing kerosene is much greater, typically 10 tonnes/year CO2 per kWp, because a kerosene flame is such an inefficient way of producing light. Thus the 400 kWp of PV installed by ECAMI over the past five years saves between 400 and 4,000 tonnes/year of CO2.

Social benefits

Solar home systems reduce the local air pollution which comes from kerosene lamps, and also the fire risk from lamps being knocked over. Good quality light and the opportunity to use music systems and TVs make life easier and more enjoyable.

Before the solar panels, we didn’t have a fridge because there is no grid electricity in this community. Now we can have vaccines here permanently because we have a place to store them. This means we can keep children up to date with their vaccines. There is nothing we cannot do because of the lack of energy.

Loida Morales, nurse

Good quality light in health centres also makes minor surgical procedures easier and safer. PV power is additionally used to run nebulisers for asthma sufferers, a widespread problem in Nicaragua. Solar-powered refrigerators for vaccines are an essential part of immunisation programmes in off-grid areas and radio communications equipment in health centres is helpful in arranging the transfer of seriously ill patients to hospitals.

Solar-powered water pumps have brought fresh, clean drinking water to communities. This has brought demonstrable health benefits to the village of Valle Centro near Leon. A government health survey has shown that this is the healthiest community in the area: cholera has been eradicated, gastro-intestinal sickness greatly reduced, and fewer visits to the clinic are needed. 

PV systems for schools provide lighting and radio receivers, and some will soon get satellite internet. In several communities, schools with PV lighting are now used for adult literacy classes in the evening, with up to 400 adults attending. This is a real benefit, particularly for people who lost out on schooling because of the civil war.

Economic and employment benefits

The provision of better lighting helps people to work longer hours or to work during the cooler parts of the day. This is of benefit to livestock farmers because pigs and poultry eat more when it is cool, but will only eat when there is light. Other income-generating activities include the production of dried Rosa de Jamaica to make herbal tea, jam and wine; and coffee drying and sorting. Some people run phone-charging businesses from their SHS.

Solar water pumping for irrigation enables more people to make a living from the land. The hotels on the island of San Fernando are hoping for increased visitor numbers now that they have good lighting, power for fans and refrigeration and mobile phone charging. Homes and hotels in Managua that have installed solar water-heaters find their investment is paid back within about three years, after which they make considerable savings. The operator of the mobile phone mast anticipates a similar payback period, because of the cost of providing diesel in a very remote location. The payback is longer for SHS, since the saving from purchasing kerosene for lighting is only about US$2/week from a SHS, which costs US$600. The main benefit of the SHS is improved quality of life, and income-generation opportunities