Great video from EWB-Sheffield

I just found out about this great video that the new generation of EWB-Sheffielders have made. Fantastic to see that the two projects that I put so much of my time and effort into are still going strong.

The pedal powered water pump that I worked on for my MEng thesis with the Guatamalan NGO, Maya Pedal, has now been developed further and adapted to meet the needs of rural Malawians by a number of students in partnership with a different NGO, Butterfly Space.

The wind turbine project has now evolved into an international competition on par with the Formula Student racing car team that were always hard at work in the workshop next door to us.

I had a great time with EWB-Sheffield and am really glad to see that others are still getting just as much from it.

Wind Empowerment Showcased Around the UK

This week I’ve been busy traveling around the UK to tell people all about Wind Empowerment. I spent 4 days in Exeter at the annual gathering of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS), which attracts a global audience of over 1,000 people.

The WISIONs programme at the Wuppertal Institute supports not only Wind Empowerment, but also two other practitioners networks, RedBioLAC and HPNet. In partnership with Carmen Dienst, we presented these networks as a means of empowering rural communities in less developed countries by linking together the various “knowledge hotspots” that have emerged around the world using online platforms such as and exchange activities. The Measurement WG DevWeek that took place in Toulouse this April was given as an example of such an exchange activity, where network members with specific skills are brought together to share them with other network members in a practical workshop environment.

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A few days later, Carmen and I chaired a session on delivery models for sustainable energy access in less developed countries. WE trustee, Heather Cruickshank, shared her latest thinking on the topic, having supervised  Annabel Yadoo’s groundbreaking PhD work that opened up this field of research. Zoe Ben also presented her Master’s research on the comparative analysis of a diverse range of models used by WE members to deliver energy access with small wind turbines in their local area.

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On Saturday, I travelled to the Centre for Alternative Technologies in Wales to attend Practical Action’s Small is Beautiful Festival. The event aims to provide a forum for debate and practical skill sharing on the theme of appropriate technology. Aran Eales represented both Wind Empowerment and V3 Power, facilitating two practical wind turbine sessions designed to introduce participants to the basic concepts behind the operation of small wind turbines and, of course, the local manufacturing process. Together we also ran an hour long session presenting the application of small wind turbines in remote areas of less developed countries and the role that Wind Empowerment plays in facilitating this process.

Goodbye Sheffield University

After 10 years, spanning an undergraduate degree, a PhD and a fellowship, it was finally time for me to move on, so Friday 6th Feb was officially my last day at Sheffield University. Its been an incredible experience, so I would really like to thank everyone who has made my time there so memorable.

In the coming year, I am very excited to be continuing my research on small-scale renewable energy for rural development in the Global South by working for both:


The annotated poster that I used to have on the wall next to my desk. Each card/orange arrow represented an organisation or individual who was actively working with small wind for rural development so that I could remember who was doing what and where. Of course, the Wind Empowerment association now does a much better job of not only identifying these actors, but also linking them together. However Wind Empowerment didn’t exist back in 2010 when I began my research in this area so this rustic “visualisation tool” was actually “state of the art” back then!

One of my fondest memories from my time at Sheffield University was being a member of Engineers Without Borders. Not only did it teach me how to apply engineering skills to solve real world problems that affect a huge number of people around the world today, but it was also a lot of fun. Working with a group of people who were so motivated to change the world meant that we were able to achieve an incredible amount in a relatively short time. When I joined Sheffield University in 2004, nobody had heard of EWB. By the time I finished my undergraduate degree in 2008, a local branch was active, but not many people outside of this group knew who they were. In 2009, EWB-UK offered me a bursary to travel to Guatemala to develop the design for a pedal powered water pump that I had worked on in partnership with the NGO, Maya Pedal, for my final year project.

However, it was in 2010 that EWB-Sheffield really took off. Emily Nix became president and managed to steer a highly motivated team in the right direction and really drive things forward. The number of projects rose from 2 to 5 during this year, we ran our first international project (the Guatemala wind project) and our spectacular showcase event ensured that by the end of the year, the entire Engineering Faculty knew who we were. Its no surprise that we won Society of the Year and 4 other awards that year!

Society awards-558

The winning team from 2010/11 (minus my ugly mug as I was off in Scotland at the time).

So, it was really quite appropriate that my final weeks at Sheffield University were spent facilitating the Global Engineering Challenge (GEC) and Engineering Your Hired interdisciplinary project weeks. The GEC is an EWB-UK initiative (adapted from EWB-Australia) that facilitates learning through problem solving in diverse groups. This year’s challenge focused on the problems faced by two communities, one in Nepal and one in Uganda. Students worked in groups of 6 and were asked to come up with an innovative solution to one of a set of specific design briefs, such as:

  • an energy supply for water pumping
  • a vertical goods transportation system
  • a rainwater harvesting system.

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At the risk of sounding like an OAP: back in my day, we didn’t have anything like this. We simply took exams in January as well as June. It was really boring! The EWB Challenge is a fantastic opportunity for students to work in interdisciplinary teams (just like in the real world), to come up with innovative solutions to real world problems and communicate them effectively to others (just like in the real world). It took me a long time to figure out that the skills I was learning as a mechanical engineer were in demand (and I’m not talking about by big private companies here) and even longer to figure out effective ways of working with others to apply these skills to the right problems and communicate the findings. Those who participated in the EWB Challenge really are getting a great headstart here, so it makes me really happy to know that we really did change something in the world: we added the global dimension to engineering education at Sheffield University.

Ethno-engineering, decentralised energy and interdisciplinary interpretation

Today I went to Durham to attend the relaunch of their Energy for Development group. Durham are lucky enough to have an Energy Institute, which spans the academic disciplines and links together researchers from all over the university. They have also recently launched an interdisciplinary MSc entitled “Energy and Society”, which the promotional literature I received boldly states has been designed to “combine insights from social and technological sciences” to address “the word’s energy challenge,” which “will not be solved by technology alone.”  The Energy for Development group was first established in 2012 as the Durham home for the Low Carbon Energy for Development Network (LCEDN).

Joshua Kirshner shared his experiences from the ESRC Rising Powers project with the interdisciplinary audience. The project investigates the influence of emerging economies (specifically Brazil, India and China) on the low carbon transitions occurring in low income countries and Josh’s research offers a case study of this effect in Mozambique. Among the many renewable energy projects he visited were a selection of hydraulic grinding wheels, which had been abandoned by their Portuguese former owners abandoned their fazendas during the civil war in the 70s/80s but had recently been repurposed as hydroelectric schemes. He mentioned that maintenance, the familiar foe facing the sustainability of so many decentralised energy systems, was severely limiting the impact of many of the projects he had visited. He also discussed an unexpected finding of his research: that the market for small scale renewable energy systems in Mozambique had been strengthened by the recent establishment of Nigerian-owned small businesses selling electrical goods and consumables – a trend that is reportedly occurring all over Africa.

Ben Campbell also shared his ongoing work on biogas digesters in the sub-alpine transitional forests in central Nepal. An initial scoping study was conducted in 2011 (Campbell & Sallis, 2013), during which, Ben (an anthropologist) and Paul Sallis (an engineer) visited a yak cheese factory in Langtang National Park with the aim of assessing the viability of using biodigesters fuelled primarily by yak dung to provide the heat energy input required to pasteurise yak’s milk. Ben points out that there is a certain synergy between “the indigenous Himalayan practices of seasonal transhumant livestock keeping, and the functioning and maintenance requirements of a biogas installation running on cattle dung.”

Currently fuelwood is used, however this is in conflict with the conservation agenda promoted by the national park status. In 2012 I saw one of the 300,000 household biodigesters that are currently in use in lowland Nepal, where similar conservation efforts have lead to the successfully introduction, promotion and dissemination of the technology on a large scale. However, the major challenges with replicating this in Langtang National Park relate to the cooler temperatures (which reduce the efficiency of the digesters due to the reduced microbial activities at these temperatures) and the lack of sufficiently fine locally available sand for construction material.

I am particularly intrigued by the interdisciplinary collaborative aspect of this work, as its not often you hear of anthropologists and civil engineers working together. Ben refers to the collaboration of ethnographers and engineers specifically as “ethno-engineering” and more generally highlights this as an example of “’problem-oriented’ collaboration and quotes Wellbery (2009):

“The interesting feature of this sort of collaboration is that the object of study exists simultaneously on two planes: as the theoretical object constituted within each of the participating disciplines and as the object of the informal (everyday or ‘natural’) language that specialists employ as their koine.”

In this case, Ben is playing both the role of the specialist (in his case, an anthropologist) and by initiating the project with the view to including “other disciplines” in “follow-up research”, he is also playing the role of the interdisciplinary interpreter. He is taking a systems level view, identifying the problem and the specialisms required to solve it. What is more, he is translating between the language of social scientists and engineers and academics and practitioners. Whilst this may sound like a trivial task, I know that from my personal experience of conducting a multidisciplinary PhD and coordinating the transdisciplinary Wind Empowerment association, that it is only too easy for great ideas to get lost as they are shared with the group in the language of the specialists who came up with them, yet sound like techno-jargon to the rest of the group.

Referring to the design of micro-hydro systems, Arthur Williams points out that:

“Good design of a complete pico- or micro-hydro project requires skills in civil, mechanical and electrical engineering. Sometimes engineers who specialize in one of these three disciplines believe that the other issues are unimportant or trivial, but in fact there needs to be a balance between them.” Arthur Williams in Engineering in Development: Energy

Whilst I agree with Williams’ viewpoint regarding the tendency of specialists to put on the blinkers and ignore all but the issues relating to their specialism, I think that he has oversimplified reality into a technical world that is uninhabited by people. In fact, the technology itself is only one part of a complex socio-technical system that is designed to improve the quality of life of people living in a particular place. If it is to succeed, both the technical and social components of the system must be adapted to that particular local context.

For example, even the most technically efficient project can fail soon after it is installed if the community technician that was trained to operate and maintain the system finds a better paying job in the city and leaves without passing his knowledge on to a suitable successor. Yadoo (2012) offers an excellent summary of these issues from her PhD case study work on delivery models in Nepal, Peru and Kenya.

Brian Ferry, an engineering graduate volunteering with AsoFenix in Nicaragua told me that after revisiting a number of their micro-hydro installations, he thought that the most important factor in the sustainability of such installations was the distance between the powerhouse and the house of the community technician. In communities where this distance was large, check-ups on the machinery were infrequent and as a result, small problems that could have easily been detected and resolved if a suitably trained person were present developed into major catastrophes that put the system out of action for days, weeks or even months.

Campbell (2013) quotes Adams and Jeanrenaud (2008):

“We must break down the barriers between disciplines, the tawdry trade in academic prestige and the sterile politics of establishment thinkers and their routine-bound ideas. We must embrace informal as well as formal learning, oral as well as written knowledge, poetry as well as mathematics, natural history as well as economics, ethics as well as engineering.”

People came up with the academic disciplines, however the only way in which we will be able to solve the major challenges facing the human race today is by breaking down these artificial barriers and working collaboratively to share knowledge and come up with innovative solutions to real world problems. I was pleased to hear Ben close the event by advising us to pencil in the 26th/27th March 2014 as the provisional dates for the next LCEDN conference, which will be hosted in Durham, as this will provide a fantastic opportunity for exactly this interdisciplinary dialogue. Hope to see you there!


WEAthens2014 features on the SIID blog

Sheffield Institute for International Development (SIID) is a flagship interdisciplinary research institute within the University of Sheffield. SIID brings together researchers, partners, students and stakeholder groups to develop new approaches to development research.

Read all about WEAthens2014 on the SIID blog:

A hard day’s work preparing for WEAthens2014

Livestream now available for next week:

WE Athens 2014

After a long day’s work, we’re pleased to announce that the NTUA small wind test site at Rafina is now back in operation after a summer break and is ready and waiting for you next Wednesday:

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One week to go!

WE Athens 2014

With just a week to go until WEAthens2014 kicks off, preparations are well and truly underway here in Athens:

The video above shows the rotor of a 1.2m Piggott turbine mounted onto a variable speed drive to control rpm. A torque meter is mounted in line with the rotor to measure mechanical power via rpm and torque. On Thursday morning, NTUA students will take you through the experimental procedure used to measure the Cp-TSR curves that characterise a wind turbine rotor’s performance.

P1290487 Kostas Latoufis mounts the rotor onto the torque meter and driving motor

P1290493 The working section of the wind tunnel is so big, you could park your car in there!

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