Affordable Solar Power – A Hot Idea?
HOW’S the weather out there?Unless an unexpected cold snap hasrolled into Costa Rica since press time, it’shot. The Caribbean is hair-frizzinglyhumid. Guanacaste is an oven. Even inSan José, where the altitude and mountainbreezes usually keep life cool, pedestrianssweat their way along the crowded streetsas the sun beats down, relentless.If you can rouse your heat-addledmind, consider this alternative: what if thesun’s energy could be harnessed to provideefficient, inexpensive air conditioning thatdoesn’t harm the environment?What if local businesses where trainedand licensed as franchisees to providesolar energy to the communities themselves,saving their neighbors hundreds ofdollars on their energy bills – not just onair-conditioning, but on heating as well –and still making a tidy profit?What if the design and installation ofsuch a system were free, eliminating thesubstantial initial investment and risk traditionallyassociated with solar-poweredsystems?THAT’S the vision behind energy servicecompany Solarsa, S.A., an enterpriseseeking to revolutionize the world of solarpower by applying a new business modelto the industry.For co-founder and president of LatinAmerican operations Roberto Meza, thefuture of business lies in providing clientswith a complete service, rather than simplyselling them a product and wishing themluck. The future of environmental activismlies not in protests, but in providing businesseswith an intelligent solution thatmakes it profitable and easy to do the rightthing.In the world of Solarsa, this translatesinto giving clients a range of flexibleoptions, allowing them to choose the levelof investment and risk they prefer. Whileclients can still opt for the most traditionaloption in the world of solar power – buyingthe equipment outright – they can alsolease to own or simply pay for the energythey use, while Solarsa designs and installsthe equipment at no cost to the client.In this scenario, Solarsa recuperates itsinvestment in 5-7 years, according toMeza.“The more the customer risks andinvests in a renewable energy system, themore the customer can benefit,” he said.“The opposite is also true: when the customerinvests less, Solarsa has a greaterpotential profit.”THE other key to the business’s strategyis franchising. Since Solarsa’s goal issustainable, locally managed solar power,the company seeks out builders, hotels,homeowner’s associations, or any otherlocal entity interested in obtaining andoperating a solar-powered system. A hotelor factory, for example, could own its ownsystem – still designed, installed and monitoredby Solarsa – and sell the energy toits neighbors.“And why not?” Meza asked. “Whydo you have to give your money to the utilitycompany, when you can be energyindependent? With the money saved, youcan make improvements. You can giveyour employees a better wage. You can dowhatever you want with it.”Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE)spokeswoman Rosemary Monge told TheTico Times it is legal for homeowners orbusinesses to purchase solar equipment togenerate energy for their own use.However, she said selling solar energy toothers would require a concession fromthe institute.Meza doesn’t appear daunted.“If we need to work with ICE, we willbe glad to,” he said, adding he expectssuch restrictions will eventually adapt toallow new solar-power possibilities.“I don’t foresee this being a problemin such a ‘green country,’” he said. “Asour technology becomes more popular,we expect laws will be changed so thatresidential and business properties caninterconnect and provide energy to eachother.”He added Solarsa is open to the possibilityof working with the institute or providingit with a percentage of its profits, ifneed be.THE idea for Solarsa was born whenMeza’s co-founder, Scott Jorgensen,decided he wanted to use solar power inthe restaurants he owns in Florida. He washorrified to find that the only optionsavailable were prohibitively expensive, aswell as a headache to install and maintain.Jorgensen was confident there had tobe a better way, and had little trouble gettingentrepreneur Meza, a friend from school, on board. Spending his own savings,Meza attended solar-power conferencesand trainings across the UnitedStates.“It was a year living out of a suitcase,but I believe in it,” Meza said.Meza and Jorgensen then forged partnershipswith U.S.-based giants in theworld of solar power technology: SolarCapital Partners (SCP), CapstoneTurbine Corporation and Yazaki EnergySystems, one of the world’s leading distributorsof non-chlorofluorocarbon(CFC) cooling units.SOLARSA is the exclusive sales representativeand distributor for YazakiEnergy Systems in Florida, Central andSouth America and the Caribbean.The Yazaki water-fired absorptionchiller uses a solution of lithium bromideand water under a vacuum, heated by thesun to 158-203 degrees Fahrenheit, to createthe energy needed to then cool thewater and force it through a coil, coolingthe air around it.While Solarsa itself is still in the processof training its first franchisees around theworld, developing projects and proposingnew ones, such as systems at an eye clinic inIndia, a hospital in Jamaica and an ice-producingplant in Guatemala, the companiesthat will actually be providing the technologyhave years of experience.Solar Capital Partners works in conjunctionwith S.O.L.I.D., an Austriancorporation responsible for five of theseven largest solar projects installedworldwide in the last seven years. OneS.O.L.I.D. project is the ArnoldSchwartzenegger Stadium in Graz,Austria, which, with a roof covered withsolar panels, provides space heat and hotwater to 600 neighboring homes.Another is the European Agency ofReconstruction Tower in Pristina,Kosovo, with solar panels that provide75% of the cooling, 20% of the heat and100% of the hot water for the nine-storyoffice building.MEZA and Jorgensen founded Solarsain April 2004 aftermore than two yearsof planning. It iscurrently registeredseparately in CostaRica, the UnitedStates, Venezuela,Colombia, Mexico,Guatemala andIndia, but work isunder way to form aninternational companyand unite theseseven smaller units.Meza chose Costa Rica, where he wasborn, as his base in Latin America becauseof its central location.“I also see a lot of potential here forsolar power,” he said, adding the companyreceives approximately two project proposalsa week from potential franchiseesworldwide.He is confident the company will takeoff in 2005.“This will be a big year for us,” hesaid.ACCORDING to Meza, one of themissteps of solar-power advocates in thepast has been using donations or subsidiesto promote the technology. He described aWorld Bank effort in the 1980s to bringsolar power to remote villages around theworld.“They installed everything themselves,and left,” he said. “Eventually, the panelsbroke down, and no one (there) wastrained to deal with it. It wasn’t sustainable.”By carefully monitoring their systems– each one comes with a modem thatallows Solarsa to see how every componentof every system is working in anycorner of the world – and by training localfranchisees, the company seeks to avoidthat problem, Meza said.“We don’t need any subsidies,” headded. “Our model is profitable. And wewant to take the mystery out of all this,because we want to make it widespread.”FOR the moment, the smallest unitavailable from Solarsa is a 10-ton chiller,which cools 10,000 square feet, Meza said.However, owners of small homes whowant to use the technology could form anassociation with other interested homeownersand get a franchise.“One little home, no, but 10 littlehomes, why not?” Meza said.For more information about Solarsa,visit www.solarsa.com.