Now five years on, as I prepare to take on a new role as Projects Officer for Green Empowerment in Myanmar, I reflect on the decisions, experiences, and people that brought me from that presentation at Purdue University to this point.
Between 2011 and 2014, I took lead of the micro hydro project in Bangang village, Cameroon, tasked with developing a 40kW scheme featuring a collaboratively designed and locally fabricated crossflow turbine. Under the auspices of Purdue’s Global Engineering Program (GEP) and the African Center for Renewable Energy and Sustainable Technology (ACREST), my team ran the gamut of development successes and foibles.
Our first turbine prototype was funded by a competitive student grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but barely a year after its inception, and merely three weeks into testing, that prototype was permanently decommissioned due to a catastrophic, indeterminable failure in August 2012. The specific mechanical failure was quickly pinpointed and reported in great detail in the team’s 2013 publication on the incident, but the devastating incident had a great bearing on my worldview as an engineer, as evidenced in the conclusion:
“Engineers’ constant pursuit of higher efficiencies in lieu of a true understanding of appropriate technologies, often a function of culture, and the resultant failures of those biases are well documented. The subsequent necessity for cross-disciplinarity is also well understood. The most compelling prospect for future research in the micro-hydropower field relies critically on the intersection of culture and engineering. All facets of true cross-disciplinarity and multiculturalism should be explored for successful project design and implementation."
Upon graduation, I was warmly welcomed into the familial micro hydro scene of South and Southeast Asia by Dipti Vaghela, a micro hydro practitioner and network coordinator for HPNET, and Dr. Chris Greacen, a small power producer policy expert and World Bank consultant. My conversations with them paved the way for the next stage in my journey: Borneo.
Through HPNET’s extensive network of practitioners in the region, I was quickly introduced to Gabe Wynn and Adrian Banie Lasimbang. Banie, an engineer, serves as the founding director of Tonibung, a non-profit organization located outside of Kota Kinabalu in Sabah which strives to provide rural, indigenous villages with access to clean water and electricity through renewable energy and sustainable solutions. Founded in 1991 to equip relocated indigenous peoples with the skills needed to adapt to unfamiliar agricultural circumstances, the organization now prioritizes integrated projects that serve the greatest human need, prove sustainable over time, and have the possibility of broader impact beyond any single community. Gabe, an anthropologist and environmental scientist by trade, wears two hats as a co-director of Penampang Renewable Energy Sdn Bhd (PRE) -- a social enterprise company set up to cater to Tonibung’s technical renewable energy demands, such as turbine fabrication and consultancy; and as the Borneo Program Manager for Green Empowerment -- a Portland-based community development non-profit which he has been representing in Southeast Asia since 2011.
Between December 2014 and May 2015, I had the great privilege of interning under Banie’s and Gabe’s instruction at Tonibung’s Center for Renewable Energy and Appropriate Technology (CREATE). CREATE, founded in 2013 as direct outcome of HPNET’s 1st Annual Gathering of Practitioners, is a local fabrication facility which has recently begun manufacturing high-head, low flow pelton turbines for the Malaysian context. By the time I set foot in their workshop, CREATE was already well-primed for a push into locally sourced, locally fabricated crossflow turbines -- an entirely new animal for the highly skilled indigenous workshop technicians to sink their machines into. With my background in crossflow design stemming from my years in university, it was easy for me to feel at home in the CREATE space as we co-learned the nuances of civil works design and site selection.
Fabrication of Tonibung’s first crossflow turbine for real-world application began with the TMT-100 (so named for its 100mm effective width) in late April 2015 and continues to this time of writing, with fabrication expected to be completed by July 2015. You can stay informed about CREATE’s crossflow fabrication, and all other Tonibung activites, on their Facebook page. The open source nature of Owen’s simple TMT design allows for, and necessarily encourages, modification by workshop technicians around the world according to their local context and conditions. A complete list of Remote HydroLight’s open source turbine offerings can be found here, and their contribution to the field of open source Electronic Load Controllers (ELCs) can be found here.
Certainly, there is not enough space in a single blog post to identify all, or even most, of the influencers who have blazed the trail for me to pursue community micro hydro, but suffice it to say that my experience and good fortune has depended principally on the kindness of mentors, peers, and role models to help me find each new rung of the ladder. If one thing is certain, Laurent’s assurance to me lo those 5 years ago still holds as true today as it ever did. “All are welcome in this field -- the technology is built for everyone. There are many people who will guide you along the way, if only you show the dedication.”
By Patrick Pawletko, HPNET member