Saturday, June 5, 2010

Hydro Hydro Everywhere

I am officially back in the saddle, and it feels good(haven't lost the butt groove or anything!). The last couple of weeks I have been absolutely thrown into the world of small-scale hydroelectric projects in the northern region of Nicaragua. I spent the first week accompanying a Villanova University service trip to help them design a community-based micro-hydro system, then spent a week on my own talking to the Ministry of Energy, the Municipal Engineer, local engineers who are incredible entrepreneurs and have perfected the art of extracting energy from water, community-based energy committees, carpenters who now have electric tools, and lots of communities including some with damaged or completely broken systems. It has been overwhelming, but invigorating! Feels great.

One interesting feedback loop that stuck in my head:

The small community of Acote Tumba is situated up in the municipality of Waslala, about an
hour into the hills from the town center. The village consisted of only 12 homes five years ago and they were selected by the municipality to receive a hydroelectric project. The surveying was done, and as the designs were being made and the community was being groomed to organize themselves and form their 'comite', more people moved into the village. By the time construction started a year later the village had swelled to around 20 homes! Construction began and more and more people kept moving in, so by the the time they were ready to finally install the turbine and generator, they all knew that it wouldn't provide enough electricity for everyone. They submitted a request to the municipality to have the generator upgraded to a higher capacity, and it was approved. Well, by approved I mean that the municipality said that if they fundraised enough money to offset most of the cost difference then they would have no problem installing a larger system. The first problem is that the penstock was sized for a smaller system and was already installed. Fine, so construction continued and concluded successfully.

They hooked up the lights of the 20-some homes and everyone clapped. Yay! A year later the village had exploded and it now had around 44 homes! The word was out! Acote Tumba had electricity and everyone wanted in. As more people moved in, mostly farmers, they bought up land in the surrounding area. As more and more people came to this small valley, tracts of land further and further up the hill began to sell. Eventually farms were being sold above the water source that had powered the electrification and subsequent expansion of the community. Now,
four years after the completion of the project, the energy committee president told me that he thought the stream had about half of the flow that it did back then. People had deforested the watershed of the stream and it no longer flowed with the same amount of water, for the same period of time. Now the community is involved in a project to reforest some of the area above the water source, as are many communities in the area that have realized that environmental conservation is not a game with hydroelectric projects. The development that the hydro project spurred has come around and threatened the viability of the hydro resources in the area. What do you do? Hydro projects are typically over sized to account for community expansion, but in these rural areas they become extremely expensive. Costs are cut and system designs are sometimes scaled back. You cannot always provide enough supply to meet the every-expanding demand, and the environment cannot handle it either. There is a give and take and a balance must be struck in the middle.

It isn't easy to make technology work in this kind of environment. I also am pretty sure its not easy for the politicians and other government employees to keep their sticky fingers off of the funds that have come pouring into this country for hydro projects. It doesn't add up, when a million dollars is spent to give basic electricity to a couple hundred people.

I also had the pleasure of accompanying a local engineering, machinist, entrepreneur, you name it and he has probably done it as far as small hydro goes- a man by the name of George Op Den Bosch. He lives and works here in Matagalpa building custom hydroelectric systems. This morning he took me around a project of his that is under construction on the nearby hacienda of a wealthy Frenchman. Over the land area of the very large farm, George will capture nearly all of the water potential, a total of 3 MW, with a system of seven smaller turbines that work in parallel and in series. Water is piped down to the maximum penstock pressures that can be managed with local pipe materials, and the discharge flows of the turbine are then directed into yet another penstock and energy is extracted again at a lower elevation. Using staged and parallel systems of this form, George has managed to piece together previous hydro systems and virtually all of the water resources of the area to produce 3 MW of renewable energy that has been approved to be sold back to the Nicaraguan electricity utility, a first for the area. He expects his customer to be very happy as he has estimated the project to make upwards of a half of a million DOLLARS every year in profit simply from selling electricity to the grid.

Now the big question right?! Not an original one of my own- How do you get the skill and efficiency of George(the private sector) to provide services to some of the poorest and most marginalized people of this country, without creating an environment where being poor makes them less desirable customers???

If you have an answer, let me know.

I am back off to the capital in a couple days, and then am heading to Bluefields to learn with Blue Energy Group about the next set of technologies available for electrification of isolated communities.

The saddle feels good - and what do you know, a year spent back in school and I still know how to ride!

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