Solar pioneer spreading clean energy technology
CARBONDALE, Colorado – SolEnergy owner Ken Olson has seen remote villages in Central America with no light. He knows the impact a small, two-watt solar panel can make.”What does strike me is the great gap between these two worlds,” he said, of his recent travels to El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. “On one hand, we provide two-watt systems, basically the panel is the size of a paperback book – and on another we’re filling roof tops and yards with solar here. Everyone here asks what’s the payback.”Olson said payback is the last thing on the minds of the remote villagers he has helped in the 10 years he has traveled for international rural development work. He estimates he has made at least 15 trips to Central and South America in the last decade, installing systems of all sizes. His average solar system size for his August relief trip was between two and 15 watts.”It’s really an opportunity to help people out who need it the most,” Olson said.Last week, Olson returned from a trip with Trees, Water & People, a Fort Collins-based nonprofit that takes a community-based approach to sustainable development. The group works in collaboration with the Peace Corps and the U.S. State Department.
The two-week mission was part of a program to promote reforestation, clean cookstoves, and solar-powered and energy-efficient lighting in remote areas of Central America.”My role is as a third-party evaluator,” Olson said. “I go and observe and report on the project’s means and techniques and report back to the State Department,” he said. “There’s a solar component to it for home lighting, so that’s how I really got into it.”The August trip was the first of four Olson plans to take with the Peace Corps and Trees, Water & People.”Trees, Water & People is a wonderful organization,” Olson said. “What a pleasure it was working with them. Their experience is not in solar. Their experience and depth of knowledge leans more toward fuel-efficient wood stoves, so I joined. To me, they are just a model organization.”Olson has worked for more than 20 years in the solar energy field, and owns SolEnergy, a solar installation and design company at Third Street Center in Carbondale. He was the first person in Colorado to obtain North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) certification, now becoming a requirement for many installers on solar job sites in the U.S. Prior to partnering with Trees, Water & People, Olson, who is fluent in Spanish, worked with the World Health Organization in his Latin America travels.”That gave me all the background that launched me into this,” he said.
Today, Olson is seeing firsthand how his expertise in rural international development, energy efficiency, solar energy and LED lighting can change lives. “You would not believe it,” he said. “It’s interesting how with the availability of LEDS and smaller [solar] systems now has made such a difference. Clean energy technologies have matured and there are now financial mechanisms that make them affordable.”While in El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, Olson traveled with two staffers with Trees, Water & People: Elliot Cooper, international program coordinator, and Sebastian Africano, international director. There were also Peace Corps workers at the locations they visited. In some of the areas, including in Honduras and El Salvador, Peace Corps workers had been pulled out for safety. Living conditions were hardly comparable to Carbondale, Olson said. But he always felt safe.”These were crude conditions,” he said. “All dirt floors. All the areas we pretty much went into were mountainous jungle. We would have 12-hour days riding in a truck on bumpy roads. But we normally felt safe.”The group worked with local partners and NGOs. They helped welcome a renewable energy training facility in Honduras that will focus on cleaner-burning cookstoves to help reduce firewood consumption and indoor air pollution, and on solar lighting for the developing world.
Although his technical expertise is in solar energy, Olson has embraced the need for safer indoor cooking technology.”When you have these open wood stoves in homes, respiratory ailments are prevalent,” he said. “The fact that this program can take the smoke out of people’s homes, improve their health, reduce firewood consumption by about 75 percent, improve lighting and lower the cost of lighting, it’s amazing,” he said. “There’s also a reforestation program that helps replant trees. I am always reinforced by seeing improvement in the lives of people who live so marginally.”The three-year international program also receives support from the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas, an initiative that focuses on renewable energy, energy efficiency, energy poverty, infrastructure, cleaner and more efficient use of fossil fuels, sustainable forests and land use, and climate change adaptation.”I have three more trips,” Olson said. “Peru is also part of this project. We have two more trips to Central America and one to Peru. I’ve done a lot of international work, so this is just my return to a lot of what I’ve done in the past.”
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