Why has ‘microhydro’ been neglected as a solution to energy poverty?

We live in a world of growing resource scarcity. The oft-quoted statistic is that by 2050 two thirds of the world’s population will live in areas of water stress or scarcity.

Currently, agriculture is the largest user of water, but as the World Bank’s Thirsty Energyinitiative points out, increasing demands for energy will also require increasing use of freshwater. And as populations rise, so will the need for more water and energy for food production.

Many say we need greater efficiency in order to help manage some of these difficult trade-offs between water, energy and food. Much of this debate is focused on macro-level solutions. However, the International Energy Agency has calculated that 55% of all new electricity supply will need to come from decentralised systems if we are to reach the goal of universal energy access by 2030.

So could decentralised, off-grid solutions hold the key? For many years, influencers have debated whether community-based, off-grid schemes can deliver energy sustainably. But this battle has not yet been won. Recently new lines have been drawn by Bill Gates, who called for centralised, fossil-fuel based electrification to solve energy poverty and SunEdison founder Jigar Shah who responded by putting forward the case for distributed renewable solutions.

While this debates goes on at the policy level, what do experiences on the ground tell us? At Practical Action, we have found that micro hydropower (or microhydro) systems, which produce power from streams and small rivers, provide huge potential for sustainable energy.

For example in Peru, microhydro systems installed in the mid- to late-1990s are still running today. Not only do they provide electricity for light bulbs and other small appliances, they can also supply continuous power for local clinics, allow people to use fridges and run small businesses. We found they reduced household energy expenditure by more than half, and 60% of families said their incomes had increased.

However, there is still unexplored potential for decentralised hydropower. In both Peru and Nepal (where micro-hydro schemes are widespread), there was rarely any deliberate attempt to connect the electricity generated to agricultural systems, or to make use of the channelled water for irrigation. This means missing out on a set of potentially transformational opportunities. Decentralised energy systems can not only improve energy access, but also help to maximise the relationships between water, energy and food, both now and in the future.

More recently, and learning from our experiences, we have been making the connection between agriculture and energy more directly. Together with Oxfam we have been working in Zimbabwe, for example in the Himalaya scheme which uses the electricity generated by the microhydro plant, as well as the channelled water, for much-needed irrigation.

The approach does of course have it’s challenges. Across the schemes we’ve developed in Zimbabwe familiar challenges and trade-offs emerge, particularly with a recent severe two-year drought followed by heavy rains. For example, in Chipendeke in Zimbabwe, initial planning for hydropower failed to fully accommodate existing irrigation needs. As a result during the dry season, there was insufficient water to run both the irrigation and the hydro simultaneously. Eventually the villagers reached a compromise where the microhydro plant was switched off for short periods to allow more water for irrigation.

In Ngarura, there were delays in construction of the microhydro project and farmers lost trust. They continued cultivating the steep river banks, and when the rains came there was heavy siltation of the system. The lesson there was that farmers have to be convinced of the benefit of the scheme in order to preserve the river banks.

Despite these problems, in both cases solutions were reached through dialogue and the community balancing their priorities. It is important not only to focus on the infrastructure for hydropower but also the institutions to support it and that is as much part of increasing resilience as the energy or water itself.

Development organisations can sometimes be rightly accused of being starry-eyed about the potential of community ownership and management. In the case of a microhydro plant this can impose unrealistic burdens, and in the absence of support structures from local technicians, spare parts, and a clear sense of ownership infrastructure can quickly fall into disuse. But the sector has been learning, as research shows. The right systems for decentralised energy production can be created and it can provide a sustainable solution to energy poverty. More

 

Water Power In The Andes

Going to work these days is always a bit of a thrill for me–often more than I care for. It means crossing a 15,000 foot (4,570 m) pass over the Bolivian Andes and snaking down a muddy one lane road carved into the face of immense cliffs. The Most Dangerous Road in the World was the title of an old National Geographic article…

World's Largest Solar Machine

Actually I'm entering the world's biggest solar energy machine-the Amazon basin. Towering glacier-topped 20,000 foot (6,100 m) mountains are clearly visible from our tropical water power demonstration site. This mountainous east-facing wall so thoroughly captures the Amazon moisture that the western side-the Atacama desert-is the driest place in the world. Sometimes rain only falls there a few times during an entire lifetime.

But on this side, it's just the opposite. Uncounted streams and waterfalls abound, some falling hundreds of feet directly onto the roadway! About 80 people die yearly on this short section of road, since it is very narrow and slippery. Vehicles that slip off the road can simply disappear into dense vegetation a thousand feet (300 m) below. It's incredible to think that this is the only road into a tropical part of Bolivia that's the size of Texas.

It's a relief to arrive in the lovely 5,500 foot (1676 m) high town of Coroico, near our demo site. Green hillsides are covered with coffee, citrus, and bananas. This also happens to be the home of Bolivia's traditional coca leaf production, so the area is much affected by the U.S. “War on Drugs.”

Campo Nuevo – Meeting People's Needs

Our family-sized appropriate technology organization, Campo Nuevo, was started to better the lives of Bolivia's rural poor. We teach them how to use their local natural resources for energy. We show them how easy it is to employ the abundant small local sources of water power to improve their lives. This can help make it possible for them to remain on their land and in their own communities.

We are working with Aymara speaking native Americans, one of the largest and most intact indigenous cultures in the Western Hemisphere. Notable for having withstood the Incan conquest, and later the Spaniards, the Aymaras are now succumbing to the pressures of modern global economics. Like rural people all over the “third world,” they are being forced to relocate simply to survive. They usually migrate to a desolate l3,000 foot (3,960 m) suburb of La Paz, in order to compete for unskilled, low paying, and often temporary jobs.

A New/Old Solution

Although they may not realize it, what visitors to our demonstration site see is not actually new. It's actually a revival of the now nearly forgotten traditional use of water power. For thousands of years before the invention of centrally-generated electricity, water power was employed to directly run machines, something it does very well.

What is new is the development of a modern low-cost turbine specifically for this purpose-a “motor” driven by water power. We call it the “Watermotor.” It can provide the energy to drive a variety of machines, replacing the mid-sized electric motors upon which nearly all modern production depends.

Lester Pelton, who invented the pelton wheel, produced a variety of these water powered motors and they were in use before l900. They were used to power individual machines – he even used one to run a sewing machine! The direct drive hydro units were replaced by electric motors after the popularization of centrally produced electricity.

Few people realize how closely rural poverty is related to the lack of machines necessary for local production and services. In the third world, the power grid is usually confined to cities and large towns. Rural people still use muscle power as everyone did in the past, and they do without electric lights. The need to generate cash to buy anything they don't produce themselves causes a focus on cash crops. This further reduces their self-sufficiency, encouraging a downward spiral towards dependency on a system that cannot be depended upon!

Demo Site
At our new Campo Nuevo demonstration site, we are featuring practical machines, directly powered by water. There are woodworking tools, air compressors, grain mills and an auto alternator to charge batteries and provide lighting. This is switched on when mechanical power is not being used, run by the same belt drive that powers the tools.

The main attraction at our site is our Campo Nuevo Watermotor driving a multipurpose woodworking unit. The machine is suitable for producing doors, window frames and furniture-necessities usually purchased from the city. It processes locally produced lumber instead of wood carried up from the Amazon forest.

The Watermotor at our demonstration site is provided with power from a water source located 60 feet (18.3 m) above the machine by 160 feet (50m.) of lightweight 4″ plastic pipe.

We get 1.3 h.p at 1850 r.p.m.s using 115 gal. (440 l.) per minute with the Watermotor Model 90 , and 2.5 h.p. at 1000 r.p.m.s with Model 150 using about 225 gal. (850 l.) per minute.

At the heart of our Watermotor turbine is a Swedish designed 4 jet Turgo wheel and a patented Turgo control system which provides the same instant on/off power control as an electric motor.

Unlike an electric motor, the Watermotor costs nothing to operate and can't be “burned out” from hard use.

It's Not Easy

Not much of this area is served by roads or the power grid. The U.S. owned (and U.S. priced) power generating system has little incentive to provide long distance lines to a widely scattered and typically impoverished rural population. Water power is the sole available practical source of energy to run machines. There is not a good wind resource in the mountain valleys and PV is just not economical, compared to the abundant water power here.

There are major obstacles to the introduction of unfamiliar technology to an indigenous population that has traditionally used no machines of any kind. These people have little money to invest in anything that does not promise a practical return. In addition to this, the Aymaras are unlikely to be reached by advertising in the newspapers from La Paz. This is why we felt that a local demonstration site was necessary.

Other problems are encountered when machines, however useful, need to be “professionally” installed, maintained or repaired. Such services are frequently unreliable, hard to come by in rural areas, and expensive when available.

Keep It Simple

In designing the Watermotor system, we have tried to overcome these obstacles as much as possible. It is designed to be user-installed, maintained, and repaired because of the difficulties in finding competent, honest and reliable technical services in rural areas of Bolivia. Because the Watermotor is locally produced from common materials, most parts can be easily replaced.

The efficiency of direct drive water power is a big advantage. A surprisingly small amount of water falling a short distance can produce the 0.5 to 5 h.p. of mechanical power required by most common machines. This means that many potential water power sites are available, and a minimum of civil engineering is required.

Of course the power output of the Watermotor depends on the fall and the amount of water that one uses to run it. Here are some examples of other possible installations and the energy output that they would produce:

A Watermotor Model 90 would produce:
1.5 h.p.at 2365 r.p.m.s with a 100 ft. (30.5 m.) fall and 75 gal.(284 l.) per minute
3 h.p. at 2900 r.p.m.s with 150 ft (46 m.) fall and 100 gal.(378 l.) per minute

A Model 150 will produce:
2 h.p. at 865 r.p.m.s with a 40 ft. (12.2 m.) fall and 250 gal. (950 l.) per minute
3 h.p. at 950 r.p.m.s with a 75 ft. fall (23 m.) and 200 gal.(750 l.) per minute
5 h.p. at 1366 r.p.m.s with a 100 ft.(30.5 m.) fall and 250 gal.(950 l.) per minute

The Watermotor itself is very simple to operate, and maintain. It functions efficiently in a variety of water power situations. By merely experimenting with easily changed water jets of different sizes, it is possible to vary maximum power output. This also allows the turbine to maintain efficient output over seasonal water flow variations. A single control handle diverts water away from the Turgo wheel, instantly cutting power.

The Watermotor can be used to drive most stationary machines normally driven by an externally-mounted electric motor or small gasoline engine in the 0.5 to 4 horsepower range.

Machines being driven by the Watermotor can be mounted directly on the turbine housing or beside the turbine. The tools are connected to the Watermotor by a standard belt, which limits the distance between the two parts of the system.

Make the Comparison

How does the Watermotor stack up against the competition? I asked a couple of renewable energy experts to give me the rough cost of a wind or photovoltaic system capable of producing 2 1/2 hp of mechanical energy 24 hours a day, including installation in rural Bolivia and technical expertise for maintenance and repair.

Richard Perez of Home Power said, “Well, the photovoltaic panels alone will cost about US$35,000. And the requirement for 24 hour power at that level means a very large battery bank which will bring the system cost up to around US$70,000. And we still need to add small stuff like racks, inverter, and controls. Overall, I'd say about US$80,000. It really points out how cheap hydro is.

Mick Sagrillo, North American wind power guru, said, “My guess, using off the shelf equipment, would be that you'd need a Bergey Excel. While it's larger than what's needed, it's cheaper than putting up several smaller turbines. Cost for genny and controls is about US$19,000, less tower, wiring, batteries, and balance of systems components. Total system cost would be roughly US$35,000. The one message I always deliver at my wind power workshops is that if anyone has a good hydro site, they're in the wrong workshop. While wind is cheaper than PV, it's no comparison for a hydro site with a 100 percent capacity factor.”

Now, this is not a scientific comparison, and these are admittedly rough figures. But the Watermotor can do this-produce 2 1/2 hp continuous-with a system cost of less than US$2,000. It's user installable and maintainable (two lube points), and easily repairable. It has only one moving part and is immune to damage from hard use. Consider also the sources of PV and wind equipment (all imported) and the possibility of damage from misuse or poor maintenance.

Watermotor type designs were abandoned about l00 years ago in the developed world in favor of electric motors. To the best of my knowledge, there are no machines equivalent to the Watermotor being produced today. Generally, very few products, no matter how useful, are produced with the aim of promoting self-sufficiency among the rural poor.

Making It Available

The best advertisement for our water driven machines is for them to be seen hard at work by the many people passing the demo site daily. Woodworking and grain milling machines in particular have a substantial per-hour cash value. Because the Watermotor is immune to damage from hard use, it is suitable to rent or lease. At current rates, the entire cost of a Watermotor installation should be recovered in only a few months.

We expect visitors to our demonstration site to have their own ideas about how they can use the Watermotor. The success of this site will provide us with knowledge and incentive to build similar sites in other parts of Bolivia.

While Bolivia is especially rich in water power resources, many other parts of the world have similar conditions, and similar needs. We would like to see this clean, self-renewing, and easy to use natural resource made available to all.

Access

Author: Ron Davis, Campo Nuevo, Casilla 4365 La Paz, Bolivia *
Mobile: +591 2 71527700 * contact@watermotor.net

Campo Nuevo is a California registered 50l(c)3 non-profit organization founded over fifteen years ago by Ron Davis and Diane Bellomy to bring simple technology to Bolivia's indigenous people.

Micropower’s Quiet Takeover

In a cover story and article 14 years ago about the emergent disruption of utilities, The Economist’s Vijay Vaitheeswaran coined the umbrella term “micropower” to mean sources of electricity that are relatively small, modular, mass-producible, quick-to-deploy, and hence rapidly scalable—the opposite of cathedral-like power plants that cost billions of dollars and take about a decade to license and build.

His term combined two kinds of micropower: renewables other than big hydroelectric dams, and cogeneration of electricity together with useful heat in factories or buildings (also known as combined-heat-and-power, or CHP).

Besides being cost-competitive and rapidly scalable, why does micropower matter? First, as explained below, its operation releases little or no carbon.[1] Second, micropower enables individuals, communities, building owners, and factory operators to generate electricity, displacing dependence on centralized, inefficient, dirty generators. This democratizes energy choices, promotes competition, speeds learning and innovation, and can further accelerate deployment—because “vernacular” technologies accessible to many diverse market actors, even if individually small, tend to deploy faster in sum than a few big units requiring specialized institutions, complex approvals, intricate logistics, and hence long lead times.

Thanks to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, which tracks investments and generating capacity, and the global expert network REN21.net, which tracks capacity and (where known) electrical output, global progress in renewables has become rather transparent. Starting in 2005 and updated with a fifth edition in July 2014, RMI’s Micropower Database added a third source: industry sales data for cogeneration equipment. Tracking renewables, minus big hydro, plus cogeneration, this database documents the global progress of distributed, rapidly scalable, and (as we’ll see) no- or low-carbon generators.

The update’s most astonishing finding: micropower now produces about one-fourth of the world’s total electricity (Fig. 1).

MICROPOWER’S CLIMATE IMPLICATIONS

Operating modern renewables is essentially carbon-free, except for minor subsets fueled by biomass grown using unsustainable practices that gradually deplete soil carbon.[2] Of the estimated 3–5 percent of cogeneration fueled by biomass, most is in the forest products industry, whose biomass wastes produce most of its electricity and process heat.

Cogeneration in refineries often burns waste fuels that would otherwise be uselessly flared. Similarly, much industrial cogeneration harnesses waste heat previously thrown away. Where extra fuel is burned to make electricity as well as heat, typically far less is burned than when making them separately. If cogeneration also produces cooling and other services, it can convert as much as 93 percent of fuel energy into useful work, both in industry and in buildings. Moreover, the natural gas that fuels most cogeneration is only about half as carbon-intensive as the coal-fired power-only generation it often displaces.[3]

Big hydroelectric dams and nuclear power are also carbon-free in operation. Thus in 2013, nearly half of the world’s electricity was produced with little or no carbon release: 8.4 percent by modern renewables [4], 10.2 percent by nuclear power (set to be overtaken by modern renewables in 2015), 15.5 percent by cogeneration [5], and 13.5 percent by big hydroelectric dams (excluding the 2.8 percent small hydro classified under modern renewables).

The other half came from power-only plants, burning mainly coal. Those plants cost more to build, and often more just to run, than their competitors, so their orders are fading, their operations are dwindling, and over decades, they’ll retire in favor of cleaner, cheaper substitutes—both micropower and efficient use.

WINNERS AND LOSERS

Far from recognizing that they’re being rapidly overtaken, many advocates of coal or nuclear power stations don’t even acknowledge micropower as an important competitor—even as it grabs their markets and destroys their sales. In 2009, a senior strategic planner for a major nuclear vendor told me micropower was trivial—having failed to find it in official databases of utility-owned central power stations, without understanding the difference. And even at minor market share, micropower can have major effects. The solar 4.7 percent of Germany’s 2013 generation destroyed the incumbent utilities’ business model and wiped a half-trillion Euros off their market cap. More