Learn more about the International Program

What does GRID Alternatives' International Program (formerly Power to the People) do?

GRID Alternatives’ International Program addresses a critical energy access gap in rural communities in Nicaragua and Nepal by bringing solar power to schools, health clinics, homes, farms and small businesses. We also install improved cook stoves for rural homes in Nicaragua.  We work exclusively in communities that are not served by the electrical grid, installing stand-alone photovoltaic systems and micro-grids that deliver clean, reliable electricity. The solar systems provide residents with basic services, remove obstacles to sustainable growth, and create economic opportunities for families and communities. Our community-centric approach puts the needs of the community first and engages residents in the process from start to finish so the systems stay in productive use for the long-term. 

Which parts of Nicaragua and Nepal do you work in?

In Nicaragua we have installed solar systems in the departments of Boaco, Matagalpa, Granada, Rivas, Estelí, Río San Juan, and Jinotega. We cluster solar projects in the same general area so maintenance and site visits are easier.  In Nepal, we have installed solar systems in the districts of Sindhupalchok and Chitwan.

How do you select your projects?

Our projects come to us from a variety of sources including direct requests from a community and recommendations from other non-profit organizations, local government agencies and partner groups. GRID staff visits a site, meets with the community members, look at the structure of the building, and choose the best sites possible based on our site selection criteria.  Communities must demonstrate the desire and need for electricity.

Selection criteria include:

  • Level of need (How far away is the community from the electric grid?)
  • Building location (Is there shade? Is the roof suitable for solar?)
  • Community involvement (Is the community organized, dependable and responsible?)
  • Building ownership (Is the building and land owner on board with the installation of solar panels on the roof?)
  • Available funds (Do we have the funds to install a system at the time of the request?)
  • Partners (Are there strong partners to work with on the project?)
  • Location (Is the community accessible enough and in an area we are working in?)
  • Maintenance (Will we be able to help the community maintain the system for years to come?)

What is the community’s role in the project?

Before their installation, a community requests the project directly or through a partner organization, forms an energy committee of local volunteers to oversee the project, and guarantees approval from the building owner or local officials. The community meets with GRID Alternatives prior to the installation, attends trainings, and prepares the site for the project.  Community members help install the solar system, provide housing and food for project participants, and organize a celebration on the last day of the project. Our approach to sustainability ensures that the community is involved and that the system will be maintained for years to come after the installation.

What is GRID Alternatives’ role in the project?

GRID selects the site, raises funds for the project, designs a custom solar system and acquires the necessary materials, recruits participants for the installation, and leads local and international travelers during their time in country and at the project site. We train the community before, during, and after the installation, monitor the community’s use of the system over time, and make regular visits to the site after the project is installed to ensure the system is working properly. When appropriate, we offer the community our Solar Lighting Program and invite community leaders to our Annual Solar Conference.

What type of training do you provide?

Before, during, and after the installation we provide interactive trainings about solar energy,cook stove use, system maintenance, and fiscal responsibility. Before we arrive with the project equipment, we meet with the community and talk to them about solar energy and energy efficiency. We work with communities to identify how having electricity can improve their lives, their schools, healthcare centers and can generate additional income for their families and community.  We set expectations for the week of the project installation.

During the installation, we provide information to the community about which appliances should and should not be used with the solar system, how to monitor the system’s performance, how to maintain the batteries and the solar panels, and what to do if something goes wrong.  We work with a local energy committee to devise a system for collecting funds that help maintain the system over time.

Does the International Program support local workforce development?

Yes! In Nicaragua, GRID has an office in Masaya with a full-time staff comprised of Nicaraguan citizens and residents. We offer an ongoing internship program to Nicaraguan citizens who have studied or worked with renewable energy and would like more hands-on experience. During all of our public solar projects, we offer opportunities for Nicaraguan citizens to participate in the project installation. This hands-on experience helps build knowledge, interest and resumes which can help people qualify for jobs in the local solar industry. Once a year, we offer an Annual Solar Conference where representatives from each community we work in are invited to a 3 day training to learn more about renewable energy, energy efficiency and solar system maintenance. We also offer a solar installation in Nicaragua each year exclusively for Nicaraguan women.

How does the International Program support women’s empowerment?

GRID Alternatives actively encourages gender balance in our work. Our U.S.-based and Nicaragua-based staff reflect this balance. We encourage the communities we work in to have an equal number of men and women on the volunteer energy committees they form, and we encourage women to participate in all aspects of a project. In Nicaragua, we invite women in to participate in our Solar Lighting Program as small-scale salespeople and each year we have an all-Nicaraguan-women solar installation where up to 10 Nicaraguan women install a solar project with GRID staff. During projects we install with public international participants, we offer opportunities for Nicaraguan woman to install the solar installation with the group. These opportunities give women interested in, or already working in, the renewable energy industry a chance to gain more hands-on solar installation experience.  Additionally, the solar home systems and improved cookstoves we install save women time and improve the air and lighting quality of their homes.

Is there any income generation from the systems?

Many of the projects we have developed with rural communities provide a new source of local income generation.  Solar home systems allow families to power a business that uses small electrical appliances to earn additional income, like an electric hair razor, a beater for making pastries, or woodworking equipment to make crafts.  Our micro-grid projects use smart meters allowing families to pay a small monthly fee for electricity usage; a fund that is used to pay a local system operator.  Micro-grids offer families a chance to start businesses that require a larger load than a solar home system could provide powering, for example, wood mills, grain mills, electric sewing machines and food processing equipment.  Solar-powered drip irrigation systems have proven to be an excellent way for small rural farmers to increase their income and crop yields. 

For projects installed on community buildings, like schools and health clinics, communities can offer new services for a fee and can hold celebrations and raffles to raise funds for ongoing support of those projects. Some communities have raised funds that they then use to offer micro-loans to community members.

Do you provide communities with computers or Internet access?

Providing communities with computers and Internet access is not part of our mission, but by bringing reliable electricity to rural areas, we are paving the way for the use of computers and other technologies. For example, in one community on the Island of Ometepe in Nicaragua, the presence of electricity at the elementary school allowed the community to qualify for the One Laptop per Child program. Now, each student has his/her own laptop to take home at night and use in class each day. In another community on the Island of Zapatera, electricity at the school allowed non-profit Children’s Wellness Fund to donate desktop computers to the school.  We have installed  cell repeaters and Wi-fi towers in some communities to allow us to stay in touch with the community and remotely monitor the solar systems.

What is the typical system size for your projects?

The size of our projects range from 200 Watts to 16kW.  School and health clinics typically have 1kW systems while solar home systems are closer to 200W.  Drip irrigation systems and grain mill projects range from 600W to 4kW. Microgrid systems are generally much larger.  

Where do you get your solar equipment?

Much of our solar equipment is donated by generous companies in the solar industry that support our work. The rest is purchased at a discounted rate from manufacturers or distributors. When possible, we purchase items for our international projects from companies in Nicaragua and Nepal.

Who maintains the system and what does this involve?

The community is responsible for the daily system maintenance. This involves adding distilled water to the deep-cycle batteries and cleaning the components and solar panels from time to time. If there is a problem with the system that the community cannot solve, they can contact us or the local solar company that was hired to install the system. GRID staff visit each community at least twice a year to perform regular check-ups and more rigorous system maintenance.  GRID is committed to keeping the systems we install up and running.

How long do the batteries last?

The life of the batteries depends primarily on 1) the type of batteries used 2) how often and how much they are charged and discharged 3) how well they are maintained and 4) the climate. All of our projects use deep-cycle flooded lead-acid batteries, which can last 5-10 years.

Do you work with other renewable energy sources (biogas, hydro, wind, geothermal, etc.)?

At this time we only install photovoltaic modules (solar panels) and improved cook stoves.  We do not install solar thermal panels or install systems that generate electricity from other renewable energy sources.

How long do solar panels last?

Mono- and poly-crystalline solar modules have a manufacturer’s warranty of 25 years, which means they were made to last much longer. There are solar modules that have been producing electricity for more than 50 years.

Why do you construct improved cookstoves rather than solar cookstoves?

GRID Alternatives installs improved cookstoves that provide clean air in rural households in Nicaragua that are already producing clean energy from GRID solar home systems. Improved cookstoves are a culturally appropriate replacement to traditional open fire stoves that reduce C02 emissions and fire hazards. They are 65% more efficient, using less wood which reduces deforestation and saves women time from gathering wood. Although photovoltaic (solar-powered) cookstoves may be more renewable and perhaps even more cost-effective, the design disrupts hundreds of years of tradition in Nicaraguan communities of people cooking over flames, which would require people to change their cooking behavior and would result in low adoption rates of the technology. We believe that the human behavior side of sustainable development work is absolutely critical. Our projects intentionally include community members throughout the entire process in order to understand daily behaviors, realities, interests, and needs and then respond with appropriate solutions. Development work is most successful when it is step-by-step and does not require radical change of the beneficiary. 

Where does your funding come from?

Our funding comes from individual donations, community fundraising events, corporate sponsorships, foundation grants, government grants, partner organizations, and trip participant fees.

Is GRID Alternatives affiliated with any religious or political beliefs?

No, our work is non-secular and apolitical. We choose our communities by need and do not attempt to influence a community’s religious or political beliefs in any way.

How can I participate and be more involved?

  • Travel with us to install a solar or improved cookstoves!  
  • Spread the word about our program and participation opportunities. 
  • Support our international program by donating to make our projects possible.
  • Support through in-kind donations of equipment.
  • Sign up for our newsletter to receive program updates and announcements about new opportunities.
  • Attend educational webinars hosted by GRID and check out our case studies to learn about best practices in energy access and sustainable development. 
  • Join our Steering Committee if you live in the Bay Area, are passionate about off-grid solar for international development, and are willing to commit your time and skills to regular monthly meetings and long-term involvement.

Your donation to GRID Alternatives' International Program helps us keep our project costs low so we can bring electricity to more communities. Please contact us at international@gridalternatives.org.