Renewable Energy Improvements in The Children’s Eternal Rainforest Field Stations

Rachel Crandell showing visitors the spring house at San Gerardo in 2008.

Rachel Crandell showing visitors the spring house at San Gerardo in 2008.

By Rowan Eisner – Monteverde, Costa Rica

QUESTION: How do you dry sheets in the rainforest?
ANSWER: See below!

Energy at the field stations

The field stations are the hub of activities in the Children’s Eternal Rainforest. Study groups, research projects, monitoring programs and, of course the income-generating tourism that keeps everything going all revolve around the field stations. So how do remote, off-grid locations meet comfort expectations when a group of thirty visitors may leave and another group arrive the same day?

Volcancitos, rivers and sun

Fifteen years ago San Gerardo (the current site of the San Gerardo field station on the Pacific side) was part of a “Tico*” farming community. The reserve acquired a hydropower generator to provide power for the community. Gradually, the small landholders left and now the 25kw generator is far too big: 10W would be enough. It is 1000 yards from the stations where the water pressure was too high, blowing the fittings and a tree fell on it. The plan is to swap it for a smaller generator, which uses less water and is closer to the station for easier maintenance.

The Pocosol field station on the Atlantic side also has a hydropower generator, but it is home-made from cups of cut pipe and a car differential. It is used to power lights and kitchen appliances like the blender. Pocosol also has volcancitos, or bubbling hot mud pots, half a mile away that could produce hot water if MCL can figure out the transport.

The challenge with hydropower is that the busiest time at the field stations is also the driest time. To solve this problem San Gerardo has inherited used solar panels from a Costa Rican indigenous community that has been connected to the grid and no longer uses the solar panels. When delivered these panels could be used for lighting and MCL is keeping an eye on the price of energy-efficient LED light bulbs. San Gerardo also has a diesel generator which produces more power than is needed for the washing machine and lights it currently powers, so that too will be sold for a smaller, more energy-efficient replacement.

Laundry: Until recently, washing sheets and towels meant two, 1 hour return trips to the nearest clothes drier on the all-terrain vehicle: expensive and time-consuming. But all that has changed with the new drying room at the San Gerardo station. Built from off-cuts of fallen trees with a poly-carbonate greenhouse roof, the 20×30′ drying room can reach a temperature of 120 degrees F inside and can get towels dry as quickly as one hour. Pocosol will get its own drying room soon, replacing an attic cupboard or hour- long road trips to a clothes drier. But, true to its name, solar drying will take longer with little sun. A trip to the duty-free zone in Golfito to buy a spare set of quick-dry sheets also helped. Now the station manager can stay at the field station and help with the change over between visiting groups rather than spend the day (and all that gas!) going to dry the laundry. This will be a great help this summer with the change over between groups, when five groups – each with 28 people – will be staying at the station.

2006 Dwight Crandell with stone masons Danne and Mike Rhaesa building the San Gerardo spring house

2006 Dwight Crandell with stone masons Danne and Mike Rhaesa building the San Gerardo spring house

Spring house construction completed complete with a coati proof door

Spring house construction completed complete with a coati proof door

Food: Salad for dinner? Fresh fruit for breakfast? Or how about fish for lunch? There is no refrigeration at the field stations, so anything fresh must be brought in frequently. Fish, for instance, needs to be picked up just before meal preparation. San Gerardo has a custom-built spring house which keeps food cool, and Pocosol uses ice boxes. Still, there is the time and cost of shopping trips and so MCL is looking into economical alternatives, including a kerosene refrigerator for the San Gerardo station.

Hot showers please! This is the number one request by guests. Currently, it is possible to make hot water by lighting a fire under the tank, but often there is no one to do it or no dry wood. Now that the solar drying room is in place at San Gerardo it should be possible to run solar hot water pipes through the room to make warm water for showers. The drawback is, with cold showers people only take 2 minutes to shower. With hot water, it would be hard to keep showers to 10 minutes.

Top energy priorities for the field stations:
Management: refrigeration
Visitors: hot showers

* “Tico” is a name that Costa Ricans call themselves.

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