‘Where the need was there, energy made it possible’

October 29th, 2015

At this year’s Small is Festival held at the Centre for Alternative Technology in West Wales, I met Rod Edwards, who worked at Practical Action (then ITDG) from 1986 to 1992. As we’re celebrating 50 years of Practical Action, I was eager to find out more about his work back then.

Rod Edwards

Rod Edwards at the Centre for Alternative Technology

Rod spent two years in Peru working on the micro hydro energy programme, setting up demonstration programmes and training people in the techniques required to install and maintain micro hydro systems. The funding for this project came from the EU and other funders for village level electrification. The Inter America Development Bank  supported a revolving fund which enabled 47 low cost micro hydro installations between 1992 and 2007, delivering clean, renewable energy to more than 3,000 families.

The project aimed to source materials locally as far as possibly but some items such as circuit boards of the right quality were unobtainable in Peru at the time and had to be imported. However there was one key part of the system, the Pelton wheel, that encountered a major manufacturing problem. Without a tradition of bronze casting in Peru, developing the skills required to produce precisely engineered Pelton wheels locally proved challenging.

But, international co-operation within Practical Action provided a solution. Rod’s colleagues working on micro hydro projects in Nepal were working with a group of religious statuary manufacturers who used the ancient technique of lost wax casting.

Nepalese statue makers polishing their casts

Nepalese statue makers polishing their casts

Working with Peru’s energy specialist, Teo Sanchez and UK sculptor Stephen Hurst, they came up with a means of producing the precision required for the Pelton wheel, while retaining the simplicity of local manufacture.

“We were constantly evolving the technology development with interaction between the two countries.  This was very healthy.”  Rod told me, he went on to say:

“Personally and professionally, we were sharing ideas and technical knowledge between different cultures and people and working out how to build this into social structures.  You have to do your homework in the community before otherwise it won’t work.”

Casting moulds laid in the kiln for firing, 1989

Casting moulds laid in the kiln for firing, 1989

The team ran micro hydro courses for engineers in Sri Lanka, Peru, Nepal and Zimbabwe and most of the attendees went on to build systems in their countries.  These engineers then worked with local NGOs and small businesses  implementing new micro-hydro systems.

In Nepal the Agriculture Development Bank of Nepal provided loans for micro hydro installation and Practical Action provided training, manufacturing guidelines and quality assurance.

Breaking the plaster mould from a Pelton wheel after casting. A nervous moment, as you are never quite sure how it will turn out !

Breaking the plaster mould from a Pelton wheel after casting. A nervous moment, as you are never quite sure how it will turn out !

Micro hydro power plants were more successful in some places than others.  It was important that the need for energy was there – not just for lighting and leisure activities, but for enterprise.  For example, one installation alongside the Ucayali river in Peru on a popular truck route, led to the setting up of a group of small catering enterprises supplying truck drivers with food and drink.

A couple of weeks later I came across these old black and while photographs of a lost wax Pelton wheel training course in Nepal in 1989. As someone who believes that understanding the past is vital for planning the future, this co-incidence was too good to ignore!

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