Friday, December 9, 2011

El Roblar wind turbine

This week I went to help with the installation of a wind turbine in a village called El Roblar. Most of the legwork had been done before my arrival, but we had to put the whole thing together, and I wanted to learn more about this so I can help more in the future, plus there are some basic things I know about to help with. Kate has still been struggling with a persistent cough, so she stayed back at the office. Plus, there was some reading and organizing to do for our upcoming trip back to El Jocote this weekend. So I jumped in the back of the pickup truck with a wind turbine strapped to it--here we are figuring out how to position it:
Most of the way there was drivable, but the last mile to the village is just a very steep trail. So we loaded the turbine generator on a horse, and had locals help carry the turbine and tools up the hill (one older guy strapped the whole turbine to his back and shot up the hill in front of us).
Most of the town is on the other side of a mountain with hydroelectric power from a previous project, but there are a few households on this side who are wired up and almost ready to get power, minus a few parts. Here they are putting the last touches on a power line from the control house (not pictured yet) to their farmhouse below.

In the control house we checked all the wiring and battery banks and fixed some stuff. Actually, there were a slew of little problems that we had to fix with creative solutions as we set stuff up. For example, the voltage regulator had been set at the wrong voltage on the circuitboard. When we hooked up the batteries, all the power went to the dumpload, heating it up before we even hooked up the turbine. The dumpload is supposed to take excess voltage, well above the battery voltage, and redirect it from the turbine to the dumpload (basically a heater to waste the excess energy that the batteries can't absorb) to protect the batteries and the turbine from spinning too fast. It's not supposed to drain the batteries. We opened the panel that says "don't open" and found a little jumper on the circuit board that was on the wrong voltage and fixed it--after a couple hours of wondering what was wrong:
Then we hooked up the turbine and generator, balanced it, and had the locals help us lift the system:
And it successfully shot up in the sky next to the control house!

I'll leave out the details on how we put the turbine on backwards and all the other things that went wrong that we eventually fixed. We only had to add a day to the planned trip to make up for losses. There still was some idle time when the villagers let us pick some oranges from their orchard as a thanks to us. We climbed some trees and threw them down to the catcher on the ground, picking about 150 pounds of oranges:
The villagers did the final hookup on the transmission line, and we went in the houses and set up the breakers. When we got light in the house for the first time, Aaron, one of our co-interns, celebrated in the living room where they were drying a harvest of corn:
That night, we all played with the kids, singing, dancing, and playing a balloon game inside under their newly-working compact florescent lightbulbs. The night before, we had talked quietly under the light off smokey tin-can kerosene torches. The kerosene lamps, in addition to being smokey and inefficient, cost a lot in terms of fuel and carrying it up the hill. The villagers do pay a monthly fee for their electricity that we have set up for them, but it is less than they pay in kerosene and labor. We calculated that the people here use about 1/100th the electricity of your average US family. The 30 households on the hydroelectric system on the other side had a combined peak usage of 1500 watts during dinnertime, about the equivalent of a microwave oven. The rest of the time they used a lot less.

One other weird thing worth mentioning is that they listened to a daily radio program, Cuentos de Pancho Madrigal, that is a comedy narration about families in el campo. This particular story was about the religious celebration that night of the "Purisima" or the immaculate conception. The story was about a campesino (countryperson) who hooked up an electrical system to a village that had never had electricity, and he ended up burning up the virgin mary with christmas lights. It was extremely similar to what we had actually done, including that we did light up a virgin mary statue with christmas lights just in time for the Purisima--without burning it down, though.

Before going to bed, one of the kids was very fascinated by Aaron flossing his teeth. Aaron explained floss to the kid, and the kid proceeded to watch very closely with extra the help of a flashlight:

The kids in the villages are one of the greatest benefits of working in el campo. I woke up that morning in my hammock to a line of 4 kids, all sitting on a bench staring at me. In addition to being ever fascinated with the gringos and their strange habits, they wanted to try out my MP3 player, and they were just waiting for me to wake up to ask about it. I showed it to them and after a little bit of fascination of the music and spanish lessons I had stored in it, they became even more fascinated by the radio in it. For the rest of the morning it went around from kid to kid, all of them listening to the radio on my player. The funniest thing to me was that one of the few modern things they do have out in the country there is plenty of radios--just not as small as mine. As we got ready to go, a little girl brought us our horse to help us carry our oranges back to the truck. She was all dressed up in her Purisima best, bare feet, leading the horse around the farm on a line.
We all headed back down the trail carrying equipment and oranges back to the truck. The hill we were on and the valley below was one of the most beautiful views I have had in Nicaragua, second only to the view of the valley on the other side of the hill.
We got our stuff in the truck, they unpacked our oranges and sent us on our way back to the office:
All in all, it was a lot of good experience for two days. Tomorrow, Kate and I plan on going back to El Jocote again, armed with more information and a little more direction on what to do for our project. We should be back with more stories in a week or so.

Hasta la proxima!



  1. Hello from pueblo colorado! I enjoy reading about your experiences and seeing the pics. Thanks for sharing.

  2. What a fascinating story. I think you should have been an electrical engineer for this part of the job, at least! Those oranges made my mouth water; and the view as you trekked back down. Wow! That bull off to the side would have made me a little leary, however. Oh, and I loved the story of the kids being fascinated by the gringo and waking up with them all looking at you, kind of like Gulliver must have felt with, who was it?, the Liliputians? Keep these stories coming, Please. They are great.