Interview with Dr Bert Kohlmann from EARTH University

For over two years the International Climate Initiative (IKI) supported EARTH University in Costa Rica in providing training on the theory and practice of renewable energy applications. The project, which was implemented in conjunction with the Berlin-based Renewables Academy (RENAC), has developed into a real success story. Established at EARTH University in 2011, CIDER (Center for Research and Development in Renewable Energies) – a training centre promoting the use of renewable energy – is beginning to have an impact beyond the borders of Costa Rica. We talked to CIDER’s director Dr Bert Kohlmann.

Bert Kohlmann together with three students of the EARTH University.

Bert Kohlmann together with students of the EARTH University. Picture: EARTH University

Mr Kohlmann, what is special about EARTH University?

Kohlmann: Firstly, we work almost exclusively with students from poor backgrounds in tropical regions of Latin America and Africa. Almost all of them receive a grant from us. Secondly, we concentrate on tropical agriculture. Most universities in Central America teach only theory, because they usually do not have the resources to buy practical equipment or keep livestock. At our university, students are able to work on practical solutions to problems, on the university's own banana plantation, for example.

In 2011 a new centre providing training on the use of renewable energy was set up with the help of IKI. What sort of areas do your courses cover?

Kohlmann: All our courses relate to the theory and practice of using all types of renewable energy – wind power, solar power or biogas. The centre has the first – and indeed only – biogas laboratory in Central America. Since we are an agricultural university, we concentrate on technologies that are suitable for small and medium-sized farmers. Many of them cannot afford expensive equipment so we try to demonstrate ways in which they can build their own renewable energy plants.

Costa Rica has set itself the target of becoming climate-neutral by 2021 and producing all its electricity from renewables. What has to happen for the country to make that switch in its energy supply system and achieve its ambitious climate targets?

Kohlmann: Costa Rica already generates 91 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources, mainly hydropower. To meet the target, work on establishing wind power and using agricultural waste has also been stepped up. Those are the main issues we are working on.

At EARTH University you work on areas such as alternative agriculture and waste management. Can you give us some examples?

Kohlmann: Agricultural waste is a major problem in Costa Rica, because it attracts vast numbers of insects, especially flies. We therefore show local farmers how it is possible to generate electricity from biowaste, which in turn can be used to refrigerate agricultural produce. In other words, we demonstrate that this waste has economic value. Since many other Central American countries have serious difficulties with agricultural waste, these solutions are highly relevant.

At EARTH University you also teach students from other Latin American and African countries. Do you know of any examples of how something your former students have learnt – especially about renewable energy – has had an impact in other countries?

Kohlmann: To date, three generations of students whose studies have included modules on renewable energy have passed through EARTH University. We have set up collaborations with farms beyond our national borders, in Guatemala for example. We also have African students who intend to use what they learnt with us on their own farms in Kenya and Sierra Leone.

What new collaboration arrangements and opportunities have developed for EARTH University through the cooperation with IKI?

Kohlmann: We are currently receiving support from a project funded by the Norwegian Embassy to inform the local population in Central American countries about the different options for using renewable energy. An example of this is the use of water pumps in agriculture and private households that are able to supply water effectively without using any electricity. In the field of biogas, a collaboration with HTW University of Applied Sciences in Berlin has developed. We are also now working with RENAC and, with the support of DEG, we are developing a course that will enable Latin American students to specialise in renewable energy in preparation for attending a university in Germany.

Has the university already organised some kind of alumni network or association or has something similar been set up in connection with the IKI project?

Kohlmann: Yes, the university already has an alumni association and we have even received enquiries through this channel from graduates from South America who are interested in working with us. We are especially proud of the recognition we have received within Costa Rica itself. EARTH University is the only university in Costa Rica to have been appointed as a permanent member of the National Commission for Energy and Energy Efficiency. This year the country's new government commissioned the CIDER training centre to run a course on renewable energy. Government officials spent a week on campus with us and learnt about the broad range of possibilities for using renewable energy. That would not have been possible without IKI's support for the CIDER training centre and we are extremely grateful.

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