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Power to the People

A vision of renewable energy for developing countries bridges the energy divide

Richard Hansen ’76, a leader in the field of solar electrification, was recognized as a Technology Pioneer by the World Economic Forum in 2003—one of two selected in the field of energy—for his development and application of innovative and transformational technologies in rural energy delivery.

By Wendy Wolfson

Richard Hansen ’76 keeps pictures of Felipe Martinez and his wife, Altagracia, on display in his office. The Martinez family, who live in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, were his first solar electrification customers—among almost two billion people worldwide living in rural areas too remote to be connected to a traditional electricity grid. Before Hansen installed their solar panel, the family used flashlight batteries to power their radio and kerosene lamps to light their home.

For developing countries with abundant sunlight and without extensive coverage from an electric grid, solar panels make cost-effective sense: electric power generated from the panels costs less than their current energy sources and provides clean, renewable energy. With an output of 50 to 100 watts, stand-alone solar units can power lights and small appliances in homes and small businesses.

Hansen’s office, located in a converted mill building in Chelmsford, Mass., is a scrapbook of the 20 years his Global Transition Group has invested in introducing clean solar power to rural towns in the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and other developing countries. The winding roads he and colleagues have traveled in 4x4 Toyota pickups filled with photovoltaic (PV) panels have made rural energy delivery for several thousand customers a reality and created a model of success for the renewable energy business.

Searching for a better life

The oil embargo of 1973 hit the nation while Hansen was studying mechanical engineering at WPI and piqued his interest in renewable energy. Fresh out of college, he landed a job in the nuclear program at Westinghouse; his first assignment was designing a refueling method for a floating nuclear reactor. He wasn’t comfortable with the nuclear industry, “mainly due,” he says, “to the issue of spent fuel storage.” While being groomed for management (he earned an MBA from Boston University), his interest in the energy sector grew, particularly through designing machinery to solve environmental and safety issues.

A pastor and his family in Trinidad beside their newly installed PV system that powers lights, radio, PA system (loudspeaker), and even an electric guitar used during church services.

But corporate life wasn’t for him. Instead, he returned to a frequent vacation spot, the Dominican Republic, in 1984 with a photovoltaic module and began researching electricity use patterns.

“At the time, about two million people out of a population of seven million had no power at all,” he says. “With a photovoltaic panel, you can run fluorescents and low-power lights, radios, and TVs.” Analysis of energy costs showed that about 50 percent of the people were spending $6 a month or more on kerosene, dry cells, and car batteries. “Their monthly incomes were $100 to $200,” he says, “so the question then became, what can people pay?”

Hansen spent a decade introducing photovoltaics in the Dominican Republic and Honduras, financing the first system himself as a demonstration. Through Enersol Associates—the nonprofit he started in 1984 to introduce solar technology to remote rural areas in Latin America by assisting local organizations and training solar technicians—he set up a revolving micro-credit fund. “Only a certain percentage of people could afford a module on a cash basis at harvest time,” says Hansen. “A system cost between $500 and $1,000.” Micro-credit was used to establish affordable payment plans and help local solar entrepreneurs reach more customers.

Customers of Soluz Honduras outside their PV-enhanced home.

Enersol secured funding from U.S. foundations, Sandia National Labs, and USAID to implement programs in the Dominican Republic and Honduras, then linked up with the Rural Electrical Cooperative Association’s international program to provide technical assistance on their efforts in Belize, Guatemala, and Bolivia. Having introduced PV technol-ogy, Enersol Associates now supports community projects that use solar units for potable water-pumping to improve health and to run laptops in schools to enhance rural education.

“Richard was never able to get a government to step in and be a partner with him, but he’s incredibly persistent,” says Robert Pratt, director of the Renewable Energy Trust of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, who has had a long relationship with Hansen through the development of power projects in Guatemala and El Salvador. “He made it work with a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, and initially depended on philanthropic organizations for cash flow.” For the past 20 years, Hansen has raised millions of dollars to assist in bringing renewable energy to developing countries in areas local governments have been unable to reach.

Richard Hansen (at right) en route with two young helpers to an early installation in Puerto Plata in 1985.

Electricity brings enlightenment

Hansen returned to the United States in 1992 with a wife and a family. A year later, he started Soluz [the name is a combination of sun and light in Spanish], a business and technology development company that combines distributed photovoltaic technology with an unsubsidized rental, or fee-for-service, offering. He raised $3 million in capital to establish two pilot subsidiary operations—Soluz Dominicana (1995) and Soluz Honduras (1998)—to purchase solar systems and lease them to rural customers. By 2002, the two operations had rolled out a total of 3,000 rental systems, managed by 30 local employees, resulting in more than 200,000 monthly rental payments.

Hansen with longtime friend and solar dealer Teofilo Cepeda, whose business startup following training by Enersol in 1988 has led to sales of over 1,000 systems in the Dominican Republic

Including cash and micro-credit sales, Soluz has served over 6,000 customers; however, developing methods to reach challenging rural locations is still a work in progress. Economic difficulties in the countries where Soluz does business, including hurricanes, currency fluctuations, and arbitrary government grid extension policies, have made Hansen rethink his business model. Soluz is currently pitching solar rental as a flexible way to pre-electrify in conjunction with government plans to extend the grid.

In 1996, Hansen started Global Transition Consulting (GTC), a joint venture of Soluz and Enersol to allow other institutions access to their nonprofit and for-profit experiences. His primary focus is now on consulting. “Our highest value is in know-how and assisting global transition to sustainable energy,” he says, adding that the consulting company advises international organizations on rural energy projects and has recently been working under USAID funding in the Philippines and the World Bank Group in Bolivia. GTC also funnels royalties (a percentage of consulting revenues) back to Enersol to support community education and health projects. Hansen’s Global Transition Group now consists of Enersol, Soluz, and GTC—with about 40 dedicated staff in several locations.

Staff members at the Soluz Dominicana service center in Cotui.

Hansen’s achievements, says Pratt, have not been just in providing electricity, but in providing opportunity. “When you have electricity, you can run sawmills, process crops, make things with sewing machines, and turn it into economic development,” he says. “You can link better standards of living to additional jobs. Richard Hansen believes in his mission. He is absolutely dedicated to making the world better.”

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