Wind Empowerment’s 2nd global conference, WEAthens2014, highlights some of the opportunities and challenges for the sustainable use of small wind technologies in the Global South.

Jon Sumanik-Leary, Co-ordinator of the Wind Empowerment Association and Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield

 

In the first week of November, 2014, a group of experts met in Athens to share skills, knowledge and experience in the field of small wind for rural development under the banner of the Wind Empowerment association. Wind Empowerment aims to support the development of locally manufactured small wind turbines for sustainable rural electrification by strengthening the capacity of its members through collaboration and knowledge exchange. The program included presentations of previous work, field trips, practical workshops and most importantly time to develop a plan for lasting collaborations between members.

A participatory wind turbine construction workshop run by Wind Empowerment in Arba Minch University, Ethiopia.

 

The potential for small wind power technology

Small Wind Turbines (SWTs: those with a rated power of less  than 10kW or a diameter below 5m), also simply referred to as small wind, is a controversial technology in the world of decentralised power generation technologies. Whilst micro-hydro and solar PV are both well-established options for the supply of electricity in areas too remote for grid connection, the use of SWTs has so far met with mixed success. The major challenges include the high spatial & temporal variability in the resource and the high maintenance requirements.

However, on a good wind site, small wind offers the potential for a lower cost solution than solar PV, diversity in power generation sources and the ability to manufacture locally. In many developing countries, importation is a lengthy and costly process. In contrast, local manufacture offers the possibility to decentralise the production of this decentralised power generation equipment and therefore shift a greater portion of the value chain out of the Global North, creating jobs and economic prosperity in both urban and rural areas of the Global South. In fact, there are already successful examples:

  • In Inner Mongolia, there are over 100,000 SWTs providing electricity to herdsmen, all of which have been manufactured within this autonomous region of China.
  • SWTs that are designed, manufactured, installed and maintained on the remote peninsula of Scoraig on the Northwest coast of Scotland have been keeping this isolated community alight for over 30 years.

Global platform for knowledge exchange

Previously, there were many unconnected organisations around the world who were using small wind power to electrify rural areas, with varying levels of success. In 2011 in Dakar, Senegal, many of these organisations met for the first time and formed the Wind Empowerment association with the aim of bridging the geographical gap between its members by providing a global platform for knowledge sharing and collaboration.

Shortly after the inaugural event in Dakar, the online platform WindEmpowerment.org was created, which allowed knowledge to be exchanged via webinars, a document library, a discussion forum, news articles and of course, by Skype and email. However, despite the staggering array of digital technologies available to us in the modern world, a follow up in person meeting was essential to allow our members to discuss their experiences face to face, share practical skills and build lasting relationships in a way that simply is not otherwise possible.

WindEmpowerment acts as both a central knowledge bank and a facilitator of direct connections between its members. This diagram shows Just a few of Wind Empowerment’s 39 member organisations, who are based in 25 different countries.

 

 

Consequently, from the 3rd to the 7th November 2014, the Wind Empowerment association temporarily emerged from the virtual world, as the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA) kindly played host to our second global conference. The event brought together participants from Argentina, Peru, Brazil, Palestine, Senegal, Nepal, India, UK, Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, Germany, Spain, Nicaragua, Austria, Belgium and, of course, Greece.

The event provided a fantastic opportunity for people following similar paths on opposite sides of the globe to share their experiences relating to small wind for rural development. The membership of Wind Empowerment is extremely diverse, consisting of universities, research institutions, NGOs, social enterprises, co-operatives, trainers, technological institutes and more, as well as over 1,000 individual participants. The event highlighted the fact that it is precisely this diversity that is the association’s greatest strength, as each member has different experiences, making the collective experience of Wind Empowerment extremely rich.

Learning from experience

The event began with a keynote address by Hugh Piggott, the original designer of much of the technology in use around the world today. Hugh told the story of how he solved the problem of the lack of access to electricity in his own community of Scoraig on the Northwest coast of Scotland by harnessing the power of the wind with a series of machines that have evolved since the 1970s. These machines have now spread across the world, allowing thousands more people to gain access to a sustainable supply of electricity, many of whom for the first time.

On Thursday, conference participants conducted experiments in the NTUA’s wind tunnel & bench testing rig, got to grips with Renewable Energy Innovation’s open source datalogger and were taken through three new open source software packages that have been designed to assist with the design of small wind power systems.

 

The experimental portions of the conference were followed by presentations from our members, which were divided thematically into working groups to address the major challenges that are facing small wind in the context of rural electrification:

  • Market assessment: small wind is a niche technology, so how can we identify regions where it could be a viable solution to the problem of lack of access to electricity?
  • Maintenance: the question is not ‘will it fall apart?’, more ‘who will put it back together when it does?’ and ‘how do they get access to the tools, spare parts and technical knowledge required to do so?’
  • Delivery models: how can small wind turbines be successfully implemented within the social, economic, cultural and political contexts in which our members work?
  • Technology: innovative solutions to reduce costs, improve efficiencies and adapt the technology for new applications.
  • Measurement: how do you measure the highly variable wind resource and the performance of systems that produce energy from it?
  • Education: how can you transfer knowledge about SWTs most effectively?

Specific time was set aside during the week for these working groups to meet with each other, which culminated in the development of a group vision and the production of a roadmap of short-, medium- and long-term collaborative actions that would enable them to achieve this.

A plan for action

In the case of the maintenance working group, participants decided on a collective vision of mutually empowering people to keep their turbines running. This is achieved by creating a feedback loop that gathers experience from existing installations and directly informs maintenance practices, therefore empowering people to deal with failures of equipment that is already in the field more effectively.

This feedback loop would encompass both the association’s member organisations and community participants. The community participants are members of the general public with an interest in small wind for rural development, many of whom may have a small wind turbine installed at their own home. As a consequence, collecting feedback directly from the end-users of the technology themselves offers them agency to declare what is working and what isn’t for them and therefore influence the future direction of this constantly evolving open source technology.  What is more, it will also enable the rethinking of future projects, so that the technology is designed and implemented in such a way that the major causes of failure are eliminated.

This process capitalises on the collective experience of Wind Empowerment members, as reliability data is notoriously difficult to acquire due to the fact that it requires long-term data collection across a large number of installations. Each member organisation has installed between 1 and 200 small wind turbines, however, together Wind Empowerment members have installed over 1000. What is more, they have been installed in different contexts, which also enables the comparison of the influence of environmental (e.g. lightning strikes), social (e.g. effectiveness of training methods) and economic (e.g. pay as you go vs. donor funded) factors to be determined.

In order to collect this data from Wind Empowerment members, a crowd-sourcing tool is required. As a short-term action, the maintenance working group committed to setting up a wiki-style platform on the recently redeveloped digital platform, WindEmpowerment.org. This will enable Wind Empowerment members to add their experiences of failures that have occurred with the machines that they have installed, together with their proposed solutions. Other members can add their experiences to this, creating a database of problems and solutions.

In the longer term, this data can be consolidated, validated by consensus among members and fed back into the system via the open source construction manual used by many Wind Empowerment members, the maintenance manual that has recently been developed by Wind Empowerment member Tripalium and the delivery models best practice guide that has been proposed by the delivery models working group.

Looking to the future

WEAthens2014 highlighted the need for collaboration between our members, as if we are going to make small wind a viable solution for sustainable rural electrification, we need to work together, sharing experiences of what works and what doesn’t in the many different contexts in which we are based. However, what really counts are the actions taken by Wind Empowerment members between this event and the next in two years’ time.

The recently redeveloped WindEmpowerment.org will provide a central platform for this knowledge sharing and collaboration. What is more, plans for in person meetings of the working groups focussed on specific projects are already underway, such as the week-long development camp designed to make rapid collective progress on the open source datalogger that was demonstrated during the conference.

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If you would like to be involved with Wind Empowerment, but feel like you have missed out on the action in Athens, please don’t despair, as all the presentations were recorded and will soon be available on both:

If you would like more information or would like to get involved, please don’t hesitate to contact Jon at Jon.Leary@Sheffield.ac.uk.

This event would not have been possible without:
Our generous sponsors:

Our kind hosts:

 

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