Sunday, May 29, 2011

Renewable Energy Workshop

The Peace Corps has recently created a Renewable Energy and Climate Change Initiative in order to increase awareness and knowledge of climate change as well as provide financing options for renewable energy systems. As part of this initiative, I attended a Renewable Energy Workshop last week with my counterpart from the municipality.

The purpose of the workshop was to introduce us to three forms of renewable energy: biodigestors, solar panels, and microhydroelectric systems, as well as financing options available in Honduras. The workshop was interesting, although I think most of the participants would have preferred more in depth information.

Everyone who attended the workshop

We talked about how each system is used, and what the ideal situations are. A biodigestor is basically a long plastic bag that is half buried in which you put organic matter (usually manure) to decompose and produce methane. The bag traps the methane which is piped away to use as cooking gas. As a bonus, after the methane is taken out, the organic matter coming out the other side of the bag is more usable as compost. Biodigestors can be used with any type of organic matter, although it works best with manure, so it’s best suited for people with livestock. The trouble is people with livestock tend to be better off and don’t necessarily need help. We went and saw a Chinese style biodigestor (which uses a concrete tank instead of a plastic bag), but the family had stopped using it a couple years ago when the municipal electricity had been extended to them (they had been using the gas for gas lamps).

Tank of Chinese style biodigestor

Everyone is at least somewhat familiar with solar panels, so we spent most of the time talking about different pre set systems that are available with some government subsidies. The systems range from 35 to 85 watts, which as a household limit is hardly anything compared to the average U.S. person’s usage around 1500 watts. The price (between L. 15,000 and 20,000) includes installation and with a system like this, with one solar panel, a household could have up 6 lightbulbs, a radio, a tv (bw or color depending on wattage), and a couple cell phone chargers. Of course, you can’t run all those things at once, and only for a few hours a day, but it’s still a monumental change in lifestyle.

Solar hot water heater made of 2 L coke bottles

A microhydroelectrical system is considered any system of less than 5 kW. Because it can be so much larger, they are usually installed as a community electrical system. Microhydro systems require much more technical knowledge to design, but we visited a 500W-one-house system that was built by the community without technical knowledge or a design. The problems were evident to all the engineers in the group, but that isn’t keeping it from working and providing plenty of electricity to the owner.

Learning how to measure the topography with a plastic hose

She hadn't been using the turbine because the flow is extra high right now due to the rain

500W of power

Electrical controls inside the house

Solar panels are the only system type that has an organized government subsidy program, but I did learn from my counterpart about several other projects around La Esperanza that I hope to learn more about soon and help with if possible. A few years ago, there had been plans to build a microhydro system. La Esperanza sits in an ideal location in the country with plenty of water and mountains for a good drop. Unfortunately, the project fell through and was never built. Part of our city is connected to a waste water treatment plant, and there is a study going on currently to see about methane levels and the possibility of capturing them to use. There is also at least one municipal funded solar project going on.

The workshop was held in the Zamorano Agricultural University in the east of the country. The University was founded in 1941 by the president of the United Fruit Company, and is now possibly the best university in Honduras, and well-known throughout Central America. The students generally study agricultural engineering and learn all about the latest agricultural methods, especially organic methods. The best part for us visitors is that there is a small grocery store on campus that sells all the products that the students produce. I was able to buy a couple bags of fresh organic basil (basil being virtually unknown in Honduras) which is obviously essential to Nicki and my Italian cooking habits. As soon as I got home, we made a batch of pesto, something we haven’t had in over a year.

Kellogg center of Zamorano

It was great to see what Honduras is doing to combat climate change and promote renewable energy, and I ended up with an extra basil bonus.

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