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Classrooms lighted and heated by solar energy
Andrés Gaudin
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Schools in isolated areas use solar panels for power.

Some 2,000 school children in more than half of the rural schools in the western Argentine province of Neuquen, isolated in the foothills of the Andean cordillera, will battle the inhospitable highland cold with solar-generated heat.

Eighty-five schools in the province are currently using photovoltaic installations for heat and electricity, but the solar power program is aiming to reach all 144 schools in the hard-to-reach corners of Neuquen, where in winter the climate is so harsh — overnight temperatures often drop to -20C and roadways are often impassable — that classes are held between the warmer months between September to May, while the rest of the country is in school from March and December.

Twenty of these 144 schools are shelters, where students who live up to 10 kilometers (6 miles) away live during the academic year.

Most of the schools that benefit from the solar energy program are in the northwestern corner of the province near the border with Chile, but some in the southeastern section in such as Piedra Pintada, a poor town on the banks of the Limay River, very close to one of the country’s largest hydroelectric dams, the Piedra del Águila.

“The solar electrification plan that we hope to finish before the end of the year includes all the schools in the province’s isolated areas, and the experience has allowed us to ensure that after various attempts failed, we are on the brink of a definitive solution that only the clouds can abort,” said Antonio Briz, director of Neuquen’s infrastructure office.

The extension of the grid that supplies energy to the province’s towns, wind mills and even the construction of dozens of small hydroelectric power plants were some of the attempts cited by Briz.

Expensive heating methods
Until the solar energy plan began the schools used gas and oil for heating. But because of the great distances between the school sites, the low number of users and the difficult land, almost every option seemed economically unfeasible, such as gas, since every heater used 10 liters daily and when roads were blocked, it was impossible to refill tanks.

“Here we have a refrigerator, computers, a VCR, a television, but we didn’t use them because the generator consumes a lot of gas and we had to save it for heating. But now, with the sun’s energy, we have a computer workshop and we even teach music with instruments that run on electricity,” said Adela Moglia, a teacher in the Picún Leufú School near the Piedra del Águila dam.

The schools are small and house no more than 20 students. They were equipped with a set of solar panels that convert sunlight into electricity that can be used by any appliance, lamp, computer and radio, which are highly important in isolated communities. The solar energy plan also brings electricity to 30 health posts.

The energy is collected in batteries and is distributed on an electric grid, said experts from the provincial energy company.

Solar energy initiatives around the world show that the solar panels usually last 20 years and can withstand winds of up to 180 kph (113 mph), and only require minimum, low-cost maintenance every two years. The use of solar energy in Neuquen is not that new. The first time it was used was in 1987 and the results were positive.

Simple maintenance
“In two decades, the complex of panels installed in the La Matancilla school only required two maintenance visits”, said Public Business Minister Alfredo Esteves.

The complex installed in this school in the extreme northwest corner of the province was built with the help of the Energy Conservation Agency from France. In 1994, a Canadian university gave helped to finance panels in the village of Nahuel Mapi’s school. The program currently receives US$740,000 from a World Bank loan.

“It was costly for the provincial government to understand that it should take advantage of the experience it had to electrify all the rural schools, but in the end we saw that we owned the light. Now the children have forgotten about the lanterns and they even learn with a television program that is aired every week,” said Richard Vázquez, who lives with his six children near Piedra Pintada.

Latinamerica Press / Noticias Aliadas
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