Engineering Grad Brings “Fiat Lux” to Nicaragua

Mathias Craig with a young friend in Nicaragua.Mathias Craig with a young friend in Nicaragua In remote villages along Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, the seemingly simple act of switching on a light is anything but simple. It’s usually impossible.

Mathias Craig (B.S.’01 CEE) wants to change that. Craig, 29, is cofounder of blueEnergy, a nonprofit organization that is harnessing the power of the wind to illuminate homes, schools and rural clinics in an impoverished region where nearly 80 percent of the population have no electricity.

Since 2004, blueEnergy has brought wind turbines to six Nicaraguan communities, providing electricity to some 1,500 people. Rather than giving residents a handout, the nonprofit relies on community members to help install and maintain the hybrid wind and solar systems. “We take more of a holistic approach,” says Craig.

Though still in its infancy, blueEnergy is generating plenty of attention. In July, Mathias won a CNN Heroes award, and his organization routinely fields a steady stream of requests to expand its operations. “The plan is to take it global,” says Craig, who at the same time wants to take a methodical approach to make sure they “get things right.”

Craig, who works from San Francisco, travels to Nicaragua about four times a year. There, he joins a team of 11 local employees, 10 international volunteers and his brother Guillaume at the organization’s operations and manufacturing base in the town of Bluefields.

Because there are no roads leading to most communities served by blueEnergy, simply reaching these villages involves an often tortuous, six-hour voyage in small fiberglass boats or native dugouts. To further complicate the commute: “It’s hurricane country,” Craig says.

A wind turbine, which typically has six-foot-long blades and is posted on a 60- to 80-foot tower, can power 10 modest homes or a clinic. Each system costs about $12,000 to $15,000, with funding coming from foundations and private donations.

“Their dynamics are very complex,” says Craig, who trains three residents in each community how to operate the systems.

The Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL) at UC Berkeley’s Richmond Field Station will soon conduct performance tests on blueEnergy’s wind turbines. Craig plans to share the results with the Nicaraguan government, which has expressed interest in installing the turbines on a widespread basis.

Craig, who grew up in Eugene, Oregon, has long been intrigued by renewable energy. That interest blossomed at UC Berkeley and its interdisciplinary Energy and Resources Group. “This is where the wind-power bug started,” he says.

Craig developed the idea for blueEnergy in an “Entrepreneurship in the Developing World” class he took while earning his master’s at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Nicaragua was a natural base of operations. The Craig brothers frequently traveled there as youngsters while their mother, a linguist, studied Amerindian languages of the region.

The arrival of sustainable energy is having a powerful impact on these communities, providing a low-cost alternative to dirty diesel generators that few people can afford to run. Already, Craig has seen youngsters conducting evening study halls and the lights go on at a tiny health clinic. He’s also observed villagers switch on a TV to watch Spanish-language soap operas. “We’re not there to dictate the uses,” he says. “We really see our role as providing opportunities.”

Topics: Civil engineering, Devices & inventions, Energy, Environment, International