Dispatches from a solar-power training expedition
Walt Ratterman is program director for Green Empowerment, a nonprofit that promotes community-based renewable-energy projects internationally to generate social and environmental progress.
Monday, 24 May 2004
Today was a day of training on Isabella Island in the Galapagos. It was also a holiday, so there was a celebration first thing in the morning at the school (where we were doing the training) to recognize the outstanding students of the year.
Our class started right after the celebration, at 9:00 a.m. We had about 15 participants in the class. The class content consisted of the basics of solar-power practical applications and design, as well as a session conducted by Seth Kassels (Green Empowerment’s Ecuador-based staffer) on energy efficiency, where he demonstrated to the residents how many gallons of fuel can be saved on the island just by following some simple measures, such as using compact-fluorescent lamps. The class mix consisted of teachers, a couple of students, and some individuals from the municipality.
When the basic class was over, we were going to show them the installation at the Galapaguera (tortoise-raising station), but we learned through part of the class that the grade school (right down the street) has a solar-power installation that was donated and installed by a German NGO a couple of years ago. We went there to look at the setup.
It worked out great, because they had a 1,000-watt array powering a few lights and six computers. They wanted to know if they could connect eight more computers. We used the lessons we learned in the class and calculated the possible output of the existing array. They had learned watt-hours and how to calculate the load, so they calculated (a) what they are using now, (b) what they want to add, and (c) what the system will produce, all in terms of watt-hours.
The class learned that the system is being used nearly to its maximum capacity now, and the only way they can add a few computers is if they cut down the number of hours of use, to keep the number of watt-hours the same.
This is the kind of information that a community needs to be able to manage their system correctly. Until now, they had never been shown how to determine what loads can be added. In most communities we visit, this is one of the significant reasons that solar systems are said not to work — because people don’t know how much load to limit themselves to, and take too much out of the system, thus shortening its life, and often causing it to fail.
In the evening, we got ready for moving to the next island the following day. We learned that there is a small fast boat leaving at 6:00 a.m. for Santa Cruz, so we decided to take the boat instead of the other option, flying and then taking two buses and a ferry.