To learn more about Alterna, visit their site here.
There are people who are just born do get there hands dirty. They are do-ers, they see a problem and they look for a solution. If a solution already exists, they make it better – if there isn’t one yet, they invent a new one. This is what it’s like at Alterna. The office is a bee-hive of activity, with tools piled on tables and machines in various states of disrepair lying around the office. When we visited, they were converting their workshop into a production plant for efficient cookstoves, and we had to struggle to get the filming done during the few moments someone wasn’t sawing or hammering or just banging around trying out something new.
Alterna is a different kind of organization, and the constant hum of innovation is only part of it. Though they started as a non-profit, co-founders Waleska Aguilar, Steve Crowe and Daniel Buchbinder became frustrated with the traditional NGO model, especially the constant dependence on the priorities of outside donors, which don’t always correspond to the needs of local stakeholders. Instead, Alterna now runs as a center for entrepreneurship, encouraging local entrepreneurs by helping to develop innovative business models, and working to develop alternative energy systems for Guatemala that can be produced 100% locally and sold at a price that makes them accessible to the local market.
There are efficient woodstoves for instance. Alterna has designed a version of the famous rocket stove that corresponds to Guatemalan cultural and culinary needs, with a separate space for heating tortillas and special care taken to avoid burning children who play around the kitchen.
There is micro-hydro electricity generation too. Guatemala is a country with mountains and water and a tremendous potential to generate its own energy – and yet by Steve Crowe’s estimate, only 15% of that potential is being tapped. Small micro-hydro systems can generate enough electricity for entire villages, using technology local people can maintain and repair on their own, promoting energy independence.
Perhaps coolest to our minds though are the biodigesters. These little machines are known throughout the world, working basically to capture the methane which is naturally produced by decaying organic matter and then to send it off to be burned either as cooking fuel or as a source of electricity. At Alterna, they have designed systems that will fit on the roof of a city house or in the garden of a small farm.
Having thought about the Earth Charter imperative to “Reduce, reuse, and recycle the materials used in production and consumption systems, and ensure that residual waste can be assimilated by ecological systems” and to “Act with restraint and efficiency when using energy, and rely increasingly on renewable energy sources,” a biodigester seems like a miracle: waste becomes energy and fertilizer, a harmful greenhouse gas (methane) is captured and burned, forests are left standing, natural gas is left in the ground – it’s almost too good to be true.
“Too good to be true” – at Alterna they call that “just another day at the office.”