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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Maxime Cremel launches new blog


Maxime Cremel approached Wind Empowerment this summer wanting to do an internship with us, so we connected him with some of our partner organisations so that he can make the most of his year out from his Masters in Economics in the Toulouse School of Economics. He is now out in India working with Min Vayu and next month he will be in Nepal with KAPEG. He’s just started his blog, so stay tuned for more updates!

Bariloche – logging data and observing the knowledge transfer process

Few cities in the world are situated in such picturesque locations as Bariloche. Surrounded by the Nahuel Huapi National Park, San Carlos de Bariloche is also home to the National Parks Administration, who have expressed a keen interest in using wind power for their park ranger cabins throughout the country. What is more, any solution that can improve the living conditions and reduce fuel costs for the park rangers can then also be replicated for others living within the boundaries of the National Parks, many of whom are of indigenous heritage and in the South, predominantly from the Mapuche nation.Their traditional lands are often very far from the current population centres, meaning that grid connection simply isn’t an option in many cases. Small diesel/petrol generators and kerosene lamps are the default solution for light and electricity, however in many cases, renewable energy can provide cheaper electricity that is available 24 hours a day.

Nestled between the Cordillera de los Andes and lake Nahuel Huapi, Bariloche enjoys a spectacular location

Nestled between the Cordillera de los Andes and lake Nahuel Huapi, Bariloche enjoys a spectacular location

I first visited Bariloche back in May, when Wind Empowerment members, 500rpm, invited me to participate in their project that began back in September 2013 with a participatory wind turbine construction course in a local technical school. 500rpm take advantage of Argentina’s extended technical education, that allows secondary school pupils to specialise in technical subjects at regional centres, such as Colegio Tecnologico del Sur in Bariloche. They use this basic technical knowledge and the existing infrastructure (workshop kitted out with basic tools) to build capacity for wind turbine construction, installation and maintenance. Last year, they guided students and teachers at the school through the process of building a 2.4m Piggott turbine. When I arrived in May, they were planning to install the machine at the headquarters of the National Parks Administration, just down the hill with an ideal lake-front site. To help finance the project, they also offered a 5-day evening class for anybody with a keen interest in small wind to learn with a combination of theoretical and practical methods, including participation in the installation alongside the school pupils as an optional extra.

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The turbine was installed at the headquarters of the National Parks Administration, as they’ve installed a few wind turbines at park ranger cabins, but they’ve had a lot of problems with both the wind resource and maintenance. As a result, they were looking for a turbine that is more robust and that the park rangers would be able to maintain themselves, rather than wait for an engineer from the manufacturer to come all the way out to their remote cabin. Of course, they were also interested in how much power the machine would produce and perhaps more importantly, how this would vary over time (i.e. does it produce as much after a year or two as it did on the day that it was installed?). As a result, I asked Tom Dixon of V3 Power to build an Arduino-based logger capable of measuring wind speed/direction, battery voltage and current. In order to give a full understanding of the energy flow within the system, current is measured in 3 places: coming in from the turbine, going out to the dump load and going out to the loads. More details about this logger and the data it has recorded will be available here soon.

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The Arduino-based logger built by Tom Dixon of V3 Power is built around the DataDuino – a remote logger with a real time clock that uses the Arduino Uno chip to measure and record data to an SD card. The DataDuino was designed by Matt Little of RE Innovation, who recently designed a new shield to allow it to record data from two anemometers and a wind vane and operate for up to a year on three D-cell batteries. It just so happens that Colegio Tecnologico del Sur has a specialism in electronics and telecommunications, so were already working with the Arduino, as it is an open-source chip that enables people to write and share their own code freely amongst a growing community of users. I asked Matt to write a step by step to guide to building one of these stand-alone wind resource loggers, so that I could return to Colegio Tecnologico del Sur this September and run a participatory workshop on the construction and testing of such a logger.

I ran the workshop as a one-off, one day event, with 17 students from 5th and 6th grade. I started with a half hour introduction to why its important to measure the wind resource, then handed out the instructions and kits of parts to three separate groups of students and once each group had turned these into a working logger, they took them outside to record some real wind. The day went remarkably smoothly, as the kids knew even more than I did about the Arduino itself, so it really was just a case of handing them the materials and watching them go!

Download the resources I used here:

Matt Little explains all about the wind resource logger on his blog and as it is an open-source technology, the code and even the PCB masks are also available to download.

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Daniel Jarmillo attended the theory/practical course run by 500rpm here in Bariloche back in May because he has recently returned to his ancestral lands in the mountains around an hour away from the city. However, despite the national grid already running just a few kilometres away, the government has a policy of encouraging first nations people to move into town, so that they can provide them with basic services (such as electricity) much more cost effectively. As a result, Daniel’s community of Tambo Baez relies on candles, battery powered radios and torches and a portable diesel/petrol generator for power tools and incandescent lightbulbs.

Daniel is interested in renewable energy to provide cheaper, cleaner power that is available 24 hours a day. Solar is an option, but the community is located in a steep valley, meaning that the hours of direct sunlight are significantly reduced. Wind is an option, as the valley looks out onto a lake, so if the wind blows off/onshore at this part of the lake, its possible that the valley could be a corridor for the wind. However, its also possible that its windy on the hilltops nearby, but that the valley itself is sheltered. Pico-scale hydro is on the cards, as a number of small streams run down into the valley.

We were able to make some rough estimates of head and flow rate to determine the hydro resource and Daniel will continue doing these once a month or so to find out how it varies throughout the year. I also left a stand-alone wind resource logger with Daniel, so that he could measure the wind resource available at various points within Tambo Baez. Together with an estimate of the solar resource, Daniel will be able to work out the best combination of renewable resources to meet his and his neighbours demand and therefore whether building and installing a wind turbine really is a good idea.

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Coming soon… 2nd Wind Empowerment Global Conference

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:

  • field trips to local small wind installations
  • laboratory demonstrations of wind tunnel and bench testing facilities at the NTUA, as well as their field testing site on the coast
  • practical demonstrations of new tools and techniques
  • working groups designed to provide space for those working to solve specific challenges faced by Wind Empowerment members
  • the opportunity to meet and build long term relationships with others working in the field of small wind for rural electrification

To find out more or to book your place:

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.