Costa Rica Coffee Guide

Co-op Touts Benefits of Solar-Dried Coffee

December 10, 2004

A new technology being tested inTilarán, a town in northwestern CostaRica, suggests innovative coffee-dryingmethods have the power to benefit theenvironment.The Tilarán coffee-producers cooperativeCoopeldos R.L., with support andfunding from the government of Canada,now dries its coffee using a solar-poweredsystem that proponents say not onlyreduces deforestation and greenhouse gasemissions, but also produces a better-tastingcup of coffee and benefits producers.“It’s a marketing tool, since consumerscan see we are not contaminating the environment,”Coopeldos General ManagerJuan Carlos Álvarez told The Tico Timesthis week. “It has also reduced our costs byabout 40%.”The new drying technology, developedwith financing from Natural ResourcesCanada (NRCan), the Canadian government’sTechnology Early Action Measures(TEAM) and Toronto firm ConservalEngineering, was unveiled last month.THE Tilarán system uses an 850-square-meter, 50-centimeter-high chamberof unglazed solar panels installed on theroof of the coffee-drying plant. Solar raysenter through tiny perforations in the panels,heating the air in the chamber.Fans then conduct the heated airthrough fiberglass ducts to an oven wherethe coffee is dried.Solar energy alone does not createenough heat to dry the coffee, a processthat takes an average of 21 hours, accordingto Álvarez. About 60% of the heatcomes from burning wood and the outershells of coffee beans.However, that represents a significantreduction, since wood and husk burningprovided all of the heat in the cooperative’sold drying system, he added.THE system, installed earlier this year,allows for solar drying in a country whereheavy rains have traditionally made outsidesun drying difficult.Andres Villalobos, Coffee BusinessUnit Coordinator for the SustainableMarkets Intelligence Center (CIMS), anot-for-profit business organization specializingin market information on environmentallyand socially responsible products,said in an e-mail that sun-drying onconcrete patios is less feasible in CostaRica than in other, less rainy climates.However, the new technology allowsfor the benefits of sun drying withoutexposure to the elements.DOUG McClenahan, the NaturalResources Canada (NRCan) ProgramManager for Solar Thermal, said the impetusfor the solar-drying project came froma breakthrough by the Canadian firmConserval Engineering. The companydeveloped a new, unglazed solar panelcalled Solarwall that is 25% cheaper thanglazed panels and approximately 40%more effective.The Canadian-led study, conducted bythe International Energy Agency’s SolarHeating and Cooling Program anddesigned to examine the potential for dryingcrops using solar methods worldwide,identified coffee as one of the mostpromising candidates, along with tea andspices.“Coffee is dried at around 60 degreesCelsius, a fairly low temperature comparedto many other crops,” McClenahansaid. “Solar collectors can be very efficientand low-cost at that temperature.”With enough funds for six to eight testsites and one under way in Panama,NRCan wanted to undertake a project witha cooperative in a country with a reputationfor premium coffee, McClenahansaid. Costa Rica was an obvious choice.THE organization visited several coffeeprocessing plants and choseCoopeldos, which stood out because of itsstrong organization and history of using“clean technologies,” he added.Other crops undergoing solar drying atNRCan test sites include coconut pith andtea in India and yams in China,McClenahan said.Together, the test sites are expected toreduce carbon-dioxide emissions by 1,000tons a year, according to a statement fromthe government of Canada.TEAM contributed $582,750 to thethree-year, $1.5 million worldwide project,the statement said, and NRCan contributed$175,000.Álvarez said the Tilarán project cost$75,000.WHAT lies ahead for solar-dried coffeeand other crops?“We’re going to monitor each one ofthese demonstrations, including theCoopeldos project, for at least a full growingseason,” McClenahan said. “We hopeto then present the results to the coffeeindustry.”He said he has already seen solar-driedcoffee advertised in North America andexpects the environmentally friendlyprocess to be a marketing tool for the companiesthat use it.As for the Tilarán cooperative, whichconsists of 500 small coffee farmers andsupplies coffee to Starbucks and otherNorth American distributors, the unglazedpanel project is only the beginning.“We are considering other innovativedrying systems that use a variety of methods,from ‘African beds’ – where cleartarps are placed 1 meter above the groundto trap the sun’s rays – to different formsof patio drying,” Álvarez said.

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