Wind turbines can be used to provide electricity to remote communities in the developing world, but are they always the most sustainable solution? This photo illustrates the problem perfectly – a wind turbine manufactured locally in Peru and installed at a school in an Andean community at around 3,500m above sea level. I am holding a broken blade that flew off of the turbine, in part due to a design flaw, but also due to a lack of maintenance. My research focusses on seeing a wind turbine installed in a community as a socio-technical system where issues such as who performs maintenance and how a service network is set up are seen as equally important as the technology itself.
The electricity produced by wind turbines can be used to refrigerate vaccines at a health post, provide light for evening classes at a school or allow somebody to start a business charging mobile phones. However, if the wind turbine is out of service for a significant period of time then the vaccines will go off, the evening classes will be cancelled and the business will have gone bust. In Peru I worked with two non-governmental organisations, WindAid and Soluciones Prácticas to track what had happened to all of the wind turbines they had built after they had been installed, i.e. what had broken, why, and how long the machine been down for.
One of the key issues emerging from the study was the need to transfer knowledge to the recipient community, not just technology. By their very definition, remote places are difficult to access, and therefore the importance of training community members on the operation and maintenance of their new wind power system becomes even more important.