Monthly Archives: December 2015

The Ouarzazate project in Morocco aims to create 2,000 megawatts of solar generation capacity by the year 2020 and provide 38% of the country’s annual electricity generation. Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian

No explanation given as inauguration of the Noor-1 plant – the first part of a massive new complex – in Ouarzazate is unexpectedly called off

The Ouarzazate project in Morocco aims to create 2,000 megawatts of solar generation capacity by the year 2020 and provide 38% of the country’s annual electricity generation. Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian

When asked by AFP, the communications agency that organised the inauguration on behalf of Moroccan solar energy agency Masen gave no reasons for the last-minute delay.

With an electricity production capacity of 160 megawatts, Noor-1 is supposed to allow Morocco to significantly reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

The complex should allow Morocco to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 240,000 tons per year, according to estimates from the energy ministry.

The project’s next phases – Noor 2 and Noor 3 – are to follow in 2016 and 2017, and a call for tenders is open for Noor 4.

Once all phases are complete, Noor will be “the largest solar power production facility in the world”, its developers say, covering an area of 30 sq km (11.6 sq miles).

It will generate 580 megawatts and provide electricity to a million homes.

Morocco has scarce oil and gas reserves, and is the biggest importer of energy in the Middle East and North Africa.

The plant is part of a vision to move beyond this heavy dependency and raise renewable energy production to 42% of its total power needs by 2020.

Article By: Agence France-Presse

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For the majority of Americans, living entirely without access to electricity is a thought that almost never comes to mind. In a country where livelihoods revolve around the energy grid, going without access to devices as simple as light bulbs seems unfathomable. But for 1.2 billion people on Earth, access to energy is not an option. When the sun goes down, people are forced to either stop their activities for the day or resort to dangerous alternatives to energy, such as kerosene lanterns or open flames.

Alex Wilhelm, a senior business major at UNC-Chapel Hill, recognized this problem and decided it was time to make a change. Ed Witkin, a member of Strata Solar LLC, heard about Wilhelm’s idea and connected him with Steven Thomsen, who also worked for Strata. The three men, realizing their shared visions, founded United Solar Initiative.

In May 2014, USI confronted energy poverty head-on when it launched its pilot project in the region of Matagalpa, Nicaragua. USI installed panels on an art center and community center in a town called San Ramón, Nicaragua. The solar panels benefit the students and the adults of the community because it allows for meetings and education to take place outside of typical daylight hours.

In December 2014, Thomsen and USI Project Development Coordinator Charlie Egan helped install solar panels on two schools in a mountainous region outside of San Ramón. The schools, Mina Verde 2 and San Antonio de Upa, received panels so that community members could use the building at night, similar to the first project.


Don Nelson Soza, a member of the community outside of Managua, realized the full benefits of the solar system.

“This system has a good impact for us,” he said. “Now, we have meetings at nights. …This building is a very important community center in this city.”

Wilhelm said one of the goals of the solar panels is to enable adults to take classes at night because they are not afforded the chance to do so during the day.

“They’re always working during the day and don’t have the opportunity to learn like their children do,” Wilhelm said.

Wilhelm was drawn to Nicaragua because of a connection in Durham, North Carolina. Sister Communities of San Ramón, Nicaragua, a nonprofit that focuses on developing education projects, partnered with USI for its first project. SCSRN built the schools that received solar panels from USI.

In addition to its partnership with SCSRN, USI partnered with a solar company based in Nicaragua called Suni Solar. Suni Solar installed the panels, while USI oversaw the process from start to finish. The partnership with Suni Solar is integral to USI’s mission of uniting the solar industry and addressing global issues of energy poverty. USI also has local partners that make its work possible. Strata Solar LLC and Schletter Inc. donated money and materials to USI for the projects in Nicaragua.

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The solar panel systems are designed to be sustainable and long-lasting. Each system should last 25 years and the batteries have to be replaced every five years. Also, each system produces enough energy to power 16 LED light bulbs, which sufficiently provides light for the schools. Wilhelm is proud of the work USI accomplished in the two communities in Nicaragua.

“I think we can do more in a developing country with one solar panel than we can in the U.S., and I think that’s pretty special,” he said.

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Whereas a couple of solar panels in the U.S. would not be able to generate enough power for one family, 300 watts of power can sustain an entire community in Nicaragua.

“When we installed solar in the first  two communities, it was like an entire event, everyone was involved,” Wilhelm said. “I think the communities really understand how big of an impact these panels can have.”

He admitted that he was initially worried about how successful the panels would be. He knew that security could potentially be an issue, and was concerned that the panels would be taken shortly after being installed. However, to his excitement, Wilhelm’s expectations were incorrect.

“One of our concerns was theft,” he said, “but the community members understood that this material was so valuable to them that they protected it themselves.”

Wilhelm and other members of USI continue to follow up with the communities in Nicaragua on a quarterly basis. They ensure that the panels are functioning properly, and if there are concerns, they let Suni Solar know so they can be addressed. Wilhelm considers the projects in Nicaragua a huge success and is pleased with the difference the panels have made.

“We’re able to apply technology that is picking up in the U.S., but in developing countries, it’s making more of an impact,” he said.

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Written by: Lydia Odom


Rob Pinder, the founder of NextClimate, is determined to take action on climate change through affordable renewable energy. NextClimate is a nonprofit based in North Carolina that helps provide cost-effective renewable energy to homeowners. Pinder has used NextClimate to launch several campaigns called SolarizeNC that have pushed for solar in various communities.

United Solar Initiative: Why solar?

Rob Pinder: Our mission at NextClimate is to help people take action on climate change in ways that strengthen communities. We looked around at different ways to do that, and solar is a powerful way for people to reduce their emissions by a lot. Also, it saves them money. Everything lines up very nicely with solar, for people putting in on their homes. There are other ways to reduce your electricity use and be more efficient, but we have been really excited about our Solarize programs because it makes a big difference that is measurable. 

USI: What drove you to start NextClimate?

Pinder:  I was really drawn to the idea of NextClimate because we’ve learned a ton about climate and there’s obviously a lot more to learn. We know there are challenges to be solved right now and we have the technologies to do it right now, but there’s a gap between people knowing about it and people doing something about it. So, I really wanted to help fill that gap, by making it easier for people to do something. There are a lot of magazines that show “here’s the top 10 green tips you can do,” and it’s like changing lightbulbs. And that’s good, people should change their lightbulbs, but we wanted to make it just as easy to improve your efficiency. I was really drawn to that goal because it seems like climate change is accelerating a lot more rapidly than we thought. So we need to do something now, and I wanted to be part of doing something about it now, instead of studying it and raising an alarm about it.

USI: How are the Solarize programs connected to NextClimate?

Pinder: Solarize is a program that NextClimate runs. The whole idea behind Solarize started in 2009 when a bunch of neighbors got together in Portland, Oregon, and they said, “We don’t know much about solar, and it seems kind of expensive, but I bet if we all got together we could negotiate a better price from our local installer … ” It helps lower the social stigma. If all your neighbors are doing it, then you’re not the weird person with solar on your roof. 

So they brought together the three forces that really made a big impact on the adoption of solar. And the Department of Energy saw what they did and funded a couple other pilot programs in other places, and out of that came a sort of handbook on how to do it in your town. So at the end of 2013, I saw the handbook and thought it was a great idea, and about the same time there were folks in Asheville thinking about the same idea, there were folks in Durham thinking about the same idea, and we started out all working independently, but over time ended up working very closely together and collaborating. Oftentimes, different nonprofits are kind of vying for the same space and they end up butting heads, but it has been really great having different groups with different expertise being able to share what works and what doesn’t, and resources and methods.

USI: Is Solarize a one-time thing, or do you plan to do it again in the future?

Pinder: Originally, we thought about it as just getting the pump primed, and once we got the pump primed the water would be flowing and take off. So we did that and doubled the number of installations in Orange County. But the state tax credit for renewables went away this year, so we’ve been thinking that we probably need to do another push. … So we’re gearing up for another campaign in 2016 and trying to be creative about other kinds of options we can help people with that make up some of that price difference that used to be there with the tax credit. 

USI: Beyond just the benefit of renewable energy, what do you think is the value of the installations NextClimate has done at the schools in Carrboro?

Pinder: The renewable energy aspect is nice, but it’s actually really small — a school uses an enormous amount of power. But I think it really serves two purposes. One is sort of a reminder to the community. Here’s this technology that we have at the school, why doesn’t every school have it? Why doesn’t every house have it? And the second is a learning tool. We spent a lot of effort making sure that the amount of electricity being generated is pushed out onto the Internet, so you can view it on each panel. The one at McDougle is next to the middle school, which is next to the library and the elementary school, so when they have different events people go out and tour it. … The renewable energy part is nice, but I think the goal was to make it accessible for students, and hopefully inspire some of them.

USI: What else have you observed while working in the solar industry?

Pinder: Something that we’ve observed is that most of the people who’ve switched to solar buy it outright — they purchase the whole system upfront. And those people were also able to take advantage of tax credits. So, that tends to be people who have higher income or more savings. We’ve been working a lot on how to make this same opportunity available to people who aren’t in that situation. Lower income groups spend a much bigger chunk of their disposable income on energy, so if we can save those groups ten dollars a month on their electric bill, that’s a much bigger dent. So we’ve been thinking about the next phase and how to find that nexus between making energy more affordable and making energy more renewable. We have a couple programs in different stages of being ready, but they aren’t quite approved and ready to go. But that’s what we’re really excited about going forward, just trying to broaden the access to renewable energy as best we can.

Article: Lydia Odom

Photo: Yee Lam


Representative Chuck McGrady is an important environmental figure in North Carolina legislature. Here he discusses his perspective of the solar industry as a Republican member of the North Carolina General Assembly.

United Solar Initiative: Can you discuss your advocacy for the environment despite being a Republican in the House? What issues do you regularly face?

Chuck McGrady: Republicans, over the last two decades, don’t have a very good reputation in terms of environmental protection. But I view protecting the air and water as really conservative issues. I mean it’s about leaving the place as good or better than you received it for future generations, and that sounds pretty conservative to me. And so, my work has involved a lot of environmental work. I think it’s noteworthy that I am sometimes not voting with the majority of my Republican colleges on a lot of environmental legislation that comes along, but when something really big occurs, for example, the large coal ash spill into the Dan River about a year and a half ago, then the Speaker and leadership in the House, in turn, can craft the legislation to manage the coal ash issue and lead paths first in the nation to pass coal ash legislation. And I’ve been able to slowly bring along my colleagues. And I’m making the case for Republicans needing to be about protecting air, water, and land, and so I’ve gained some credibility with my colleagues and I’ve been able to do more work in that area.


USI: Why do you think the environment is such a partisan issue, and do you think there is anything that can be done to change that?

McGrady: I think it’s sort of a historical anomaly. Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the environment was a bipartisan issue. But beginning with President Reagan and two President Bushs, the leadership of the party was with western Republicans. And frankly, these issues break down east to west more than republican to democratic. But, when the party was being lead by western Republicans, they didn’t share the same views as their eastern colleges. In the east, we’ve got cities, and we’ve learned through time that when you’ve got a lot of people along a river you have to learn how to protect your water source and deal with your waste- solid waste, sewage, or something else. In the west, you don’t have that issue, so the focus in more on extractive industries of various types- mining and whatnot. So I think the party has sort of lost its focus on the issue, and the Democrats were opportunists that picked up the issue and were actually able to use the issue effectively in the debate over politics. I’ve always been hoping to change that, so that’s been a goal for several decades now.


I think that Republicans ought to be perhaps more willing to approach these issues in a non-regulatory fashion, and would be something consistent with their conservative philosophies. And I would hope that Democrats and Republicans can agree to protect the air and water and the only debate would be on how we can do that.


USI: Is there anything you would like to discuss about the expiration of the North Carolina tax credit on solar?

McGrady: Well I lost that battle. I was a strong supporter of renewing the solar tax credits. We got a slight extension, meaning that projects that were begun before the end of the year will continue to receive the tax credit. I don’t have big hopes for being able to put it back in place. Philosophically, my colleagues don’t like these types of tax credits, and have been slowly but surely been trying to do away with a whole range of tax credits of the same sort. And this year we just weren’t capable of extending it.


USI: Do you think there was anything that could’ve been done to prevent this?

McGrady: Politics is about relationships. A large number of my colleagues obviously didn’t view the tax credits as valuable enough to keep in place. If you could go back two or three years, my push would’ve been to have the supporters of the tax credits, be it solar, wind, or other renewables, spend more time building relationships with my colleagues and getting them out and showing them what was being done on the ground. I think there was some amount of misinformation about the tax credits and how they were being used.


USI: Why solar?

McGrady: It’s a clean source of energy. So, for example, we’re not dealing with coal where you’ve got coal ash, or with nuclear where you’ve got a waste stream that will last in/for perpetuity. Most other types of energy have air quality or water quality impacts. That’s generally not true of solar. One could argue it takes metal, glass, and wiring to create a solar panel, but its overall impact on the environment is much less than other sources. And as it becomes a financially viable alternative, I think it needs to be a part of the mix. I think as we improve our battery capacity, solar and other renewables will become even more important. So I see a really good future for solar, even if we suffered a bit of a setback with the failure to renew the solar tax credit.

Article: Meredith Ratledge

Photo: Citizen-Times


For African students living in remote, off-the-grid locations, learning about computers and digital technology is virtually impossible. But what if the digital world were brought to them?

That’s the idea behind the DigiTruck project, a fledgling initiative that hopes to deploy a fleet of mobile, solar-powered digital classrooms that can travel self-sufficiently to, from and between rural African communities.

Digital literacy non-profit Close the Gap, in partnership with Arrow Electronics and Hoops of Hope, began the DigiTruck project last year. The project’s first mobile classroom is a standard 40-foot shipping container fitted with solar panels and a power management system designed for extended off-the-grid use. The container can be transported via standard tractor-trailer trucks.

Inside the mobile classroom, the DigiTruck features workstations stocked with refurbished computer equipment, including laptops, routers, a large LED display screen and a printer. The classroom can accommodate up to 18 students and can run off solar energy and rechargeable battery reserves for days at a time.

The DigiTruck is designed to be versatile as well — it can morph into a mobile health center or training space, depending on what’s needed. Close the Gap keeps the classroom stocked through its Project Cycle program, which distributes donated and refurbished electronic equipment.

The pilot model of the DigiTruck was built by local workers in Arusha, Tanzania and is currently in use at the Tuleeni orphanage in the country’s Kilimanjaro region. The truck will move on to a new location in 2016, and Close the Gap hopes to build a fleet of DigiTrucks in the next few years.

“The DigiTruck can educate the world,” says Tuleeni orphanage founder Mama Faraji in the project’s demo video, below. “Through those computers we learn so many things there. I think it will be a very big thing for us.”


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Greg Gangi

Greg Gangi is a professor at UNC, Chapel Hill, and director with the Institute for the Environment. He discussed his motivation behind teaching and how this accompanies his relationship with leaders in the solar industry in North Carolina.

United Solar Initiative: How would you describe your relationship to the solar industry?

Greg Gangi: Well I just got an 8.25 kW system put on my house this week. It’s not hooked up yet, so the inverter hasn’t been installed, but in a few weeks, I’ll be producing my own electricity. So that’s really exciting. And then on another level I’ve known a lot of the entrepreneurs who’ve developed the solar industry in North Carolina. I have a good relationship with them and I’ve been sending them a lot of students via either internships or jobs into their companies. So that’s been a really nice relationship for us because it gives students great opportunities.


USI: Why are you a teacher and how does this align with your support of the renewable sector? Does support of one aid in support of the other?

Gangi: I think there are many things to being a teacher, so I think this aligns more with the idea of being a mentor. Mentoring is very important also, and I think it’s important to help students with career development, so the growth of the renewable industry in North Carolina has been great for our majors.


USI: How does your advocacy of the solar industry come to fruition in the classroom?

Gangi: It’s not so much advocacy, I just point out the obvious like price declines and how solar is reaching grid parity. I use solar also as an example for how technology can scale up, and that’s part of a larger discussion about clean technology and how clean technology can really help bridge the divide between environment and economic development.

And then of course, as part of teaching, again, I’ve been trying to look at different ways to teach so there’s still the standard lecture format, and I’ve struggled to find ways, especially in the intro class that is very broad, and there’s not a lot of problem sets to do a flipped classroom. But I’ve been doing other things like the Clean Tech Summit, which brings the clean technology industry to campus, and so students then can really learn from people from a wide range of industries doing things related to clean tech whether it’s finance or renewable energy developers or smart grid companies. This, I think, is a really good way to show students what’s out there. I can stand up and lecture; it’s another thing to go there and have lunch with somebody who is a CEO of a company. That just provides an entirely different perspective.

Article: Meredith Ratledge

Photo: Jack Molloy