For anybody interested in small wind for rural development, this is an absolute must. Kindly hosted by Wind Empowerment members at the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA) and taking place from the 3rd-7th November 2014, the action packed agenda includes:
To find out more or to book your place: http://weathens2014.wordpress.com/
We are currently running an Indiegogo crowd sourcing campaign as Wind Empowerment is a non-profit organisation. So even if you are unable to make it to the conference personally, we would very much appreciate your support to make sure all those that want to attend the event and take the knowledge back to their own countries can do so.
After over three years working on the project, it was a great feeling to finally launch the first editions of Engineering in Development at EWB’s Massive Small Change conference today. Both the Pre-departure and Transport books were available in proper printed book form and were selling like hot cakes. The original print run of 20 Pre-departure books has now completely sold out, with almost all the books given to this years outgoing EWB-UK placement volunteers, who attended EWB’s Pre-departure Course earlier this month. 8 of the Transport volume were sold today and whilst the Energy volume was only available to demonstrate in pre-print form, we were really impressed with the amount of people who were already wanting to get hold of it. Not only were people interested in reading it, but also in contributing to it, as these are just the first (of hopefully many) editions of the ongoing Engineering in Development process, which is designed to capture and disseminate the huge range of knowledge that EWB-UK has acquired during the last 12 years. Both the Transport and Pre-departure books are now available to download for free in pdf format on the Engineering in Development web site and it is hoped that the Energy book will be joining them in the next couple of months.
This last Tuesday I attended the 5th Annual SIID (Sheffield Institute for International Development) Postgraduate conference. The theme of the conference was “multidisciplinary insights into international development”, so I thought it would be a great opportunity to reflect on my experience working across the social sciences and engineering during my PhD.
For me, taking a multidisciplinary approach was a decision taken out of necessity. Although I had been set up for interdisciplinary PhD work by the E-Futures Doctoral Training Centre (DTC), I had always seen myself as a mechanical engineer that would perhaps dabble in other disciplines as and when necessary.
However, after a year or so of engineering focussed research on the optimisation of small wind turbine blades for manufacture by hand, I discovered that I was barking up the wrong tree. The message from the field was loud and clear: many small wind turbines had been installed in remote communities, but were failing to deliver the improvements in quality of life that they had promised. Many of these machines were failing just months after they were installed, so was it really relevant to spend three years improving the efficiency of the blades by a few percent if the blades were going to spend the majority of their life standing still (or worse, smashing into pieces)?
In order to discover why so many small wind turbines that had been installed in development projects around the world were spending so long out of service, it was essential to understand both the context in which they were installed (social science), as well as the technical details of the design and possible failure modes (engineering). So I set out to answer this question, drawing on techniques from both disciplines to dig deeper into the underlying reasons that were causing the technology to succeed or fail in each specific context.
The range of methodologies I ended up employing covered the full spectrum, from quantitative to qualitative, from engineering to social science. This wide range of techniques allowed me to pick the most appropriate tool for the job whenever a new construct popped up. However, it was the overlap between techniques that really illustrated the merit of the multidisciplinary approach, as findings could be triangulated between techniques, adding much greater weight to the resulting argument (assuming that the findings agreed, of course!).
What is more, even though the findings of the different techniques may have been the same, the way in which they portrayed the evidence was often very different; for example, the rich qualitative anecdotes revealed by participant observation were frequently used to contextualise the hard numbers revealed by quantitative techniques such as power performance measurement.
Of course, the multidisciplinary approach isn’t without its pitfalls. Becoming the “jack of all trades, but master of none” was a significant worry for me throughout the research, and although it sounds trivial, translating between the vocabulary used by each discipline was also a major problem, as it took almost a year before I realised that both my engineering and social science supervisors were often saying very similar things, but simply using different language to describe them.
All in all, choosing the multidisciplinary path was ultimately far more rewarding than staying within my comfort zone as a mechanical engineer. Not only did it allow me to find a much more complete answer to my research question, but it was ultimately much more enjoyable, as I was able to spend time talking to people in the field, as well as build models on the computer and play around with machines in the laboratory. I think that doing any one of these three things for three years straight would certainly have been enough to drive me crazy!
If you’d like to know more, take a look at the presentation I gave at the conference or stay tuned for my thesis, which will hopefully be available here very soon…
What luck: both the organisations that I had wanted to work with in Nepal, Practical Action and KAPEG, had teamed up to host this workshop the day after the IEEE conference finished! It was quite the contrast to the IEEE’s event and I was pleased to see that other than Peter Freere, who ran the morning session, then I was the only non-Nepali there. Fortunately the whole event was in English, which did feel quite strange as after Peter had gone, I was left wondering whether the afternoon’s discussion would have been much easier for everybody else if it had been in Nepali.
Peter is a very interesting fellow, who worked at Monash University in Australia before transferring to Kathmandu University for 4 years. Whilst there, he founded KUPEG (the Kathmandu University Power and Energy Group) and successfully trained many students to an international standard. When he left Kathmandu University, KUPEG became KAPEG (the Kathmandu Alternative Power and Energy Group) and continued much as it had done before. Peter’s excellent tuition allowed many of KAPEG’s staff to obtain prestigious scholarships to study overseas, which although great for them has made it very difficult for the organisation to make progress with such high staff turnover. As I mentioned in my previous post, I hope some of them come back to KAPEG after their studies as their new skills will be invaluable to the organisation.
The highlight of the day for me was the round table discussion at the end of the day on wind power in Nepal. Important issues that came up were:
Last week I was lucky enough to be able to share my work with some of the top European researchers in the field of wind energy at the 8th PhD Seminar for Wind Energy in Europe (see “Publications” section for the work I presented). The event was hosted by ETH Zurich, one of the world’s most prestigious universities that can claim Albert Einstein as its most famous alumnus! They did a fantastic job of welcoming delegates from all across the continent and wowed us all with their array of techno-gadgetery that included fast-response probes mounted on remote control planes or kites and a fully kitted out LiDAR van for measuring the flow field in an actual wind farm.
ETH, like the rest of Switzerland, runs like clockwork. Everything is on time, everything is where it is supposed to be and everything is of exceptional quality. Although it is definitely somewhere I would like to study/work one day, I’m not sure if I could live here forever because everything is just a little too ordered. By the end of the trip I was actually quite looking forward to being back in the grimey chaos of our mouldy little island in the far corner of the continent.
I presented the first power curve we produced just last week on Scoraig and it went down really well. At the end of the presentation I compared our results to those of a wind tunnel study from TU Delft and it turned out that the professor who supervised this project was in the audience. Naturally he was quite pleased that both sets of results matched so closely!
On the final day, we were supposed to visit the world’s highest wind farm at well over 2000m, however heavy snowfall in the Alps meant that we instead meant that we went to Switzerland’s biggest wind farm at Mount Croeso. It was quite a surreal experience, as the wind turbines were completely surrounded by herds of blissfully unaware cows. In true Swiss style, each cow was perfectly manicured and each had a shiny cow bell around its neck. As you can see in the video below, the scene was peaceful, yet strangely hypnotic. I recommend thinking of this scene late at night and counting the number of times the blades rotate as a contemporary alternative to counting sheep.