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Picohydro in Rwanda

Capacity building and networking to develop small-scale electric using hydro power by Terri Harris

Kyle Gaiser & Joshua Milburn

According to German government agency GTZ, only 14% of Rwandans had access to electricity in April 2011.  The Rwandan government plans to increase that percentage to 60% by 2020, but that means that many small rural villages will still be without electricity.  One low-tech, low-cost solution for providing electricity in rural settlements with appropriate landscape features and sufficient water resources is “picohydro” energy.  Picohydro refers to hydroelectric systems that produce 5 kW of electricity or less.  Picohydro systems divert water from a stream through a tube which travels down a steep hill and moves through a turbine, which spins and runs a generator.

picohydro 1Picohydro does not require a dam and has a smaller environmental footprint.  Water can rejoin the stream after passing through the turbine or remain diverted and be used for other domestic purposes.  A picohydro system that produces 5 kW of electricity is enough to light 500 homes with 10 W energy-efficient compact florescent lights (CFL).  It can improve the quality of life and enhance the local environment by eliminating the more typical methods of lighting such as kerosene and wood burning.  Picohydro can provide a steady source of lighting, enabling students to study with better light quality and small businesses to remain open at night.  In some parts of Rwanda this idea has gained in popularity as a way for villages to attain some of the benefits of electricity even though many villages are years from being able to connect to a central grid.

picohydro 2Delivering the technology of picohydro, as with any work in a developing country, is as much about the people as it is about the technology.  A technology is only “sustainable” if it is something that the local community wants and has the social infrastructure to support.  Any technical solution must include a process for overcoming the diverse technology-transfer challenges, such as replacing expensive parts, providing service and maintenance, meeting training needs and requirements, and developing local capacity for specialized labor. Developing that process was the goal of a team of Blum Center grantees who travelled to Rwanda last summer.

picohydro 3The Team
Kyle Gaiser is a graduate student at UC Davis studying mechanical engineering.  Kyle taught in Rwanda as a volunteer from December 2009 through March 2011.  While in Rwanda and from further study, Kyle recognized the benefits and potential of picohydro, but knew that the concept, while popular, remained undeveloped.  Joshua Milburn is an electrical engineer by training and works at Brown & Caldwell located in Cleveland, Ohio.  Josh has been interested in energy generation for rural areas for many years.  He joined Kyle as a technical expert for their Blum Center Poverty Alleviation through Sustainable Solutions (PASS) grants project.

Josh and Kyle were fortunate to have the opportunity to work with interns from the Rwanda National University, Moises Ruhinda and Jean de la Croix Ntivuguruzwa.  Moises and Jean received training from Josh and Kyle in picohydro mechanics, site evaluation and community engagement over the course of the project.

Assessing Feasibility
Kyle and Josh went to Rwanda in the summer of 2012.  The main purpose of their trip was to assess the feasibility of a business model for disseminating picohydro technology.  

They assessed:

  • picohydro 4Physical feasibility - ease of access for a village, local schools and businesses; consistent flow of water and appropriate topography.
  • Social feasibility - the interest and engagement of the local community who actively wanted to attain picohydro; a supportive social infrastructure as well as access or available people with the right expertise and skills to maintain a system.
  • Legal feasibility - ensuring that legal and political processes were in place for getting approval from the government for an ongoing picohydro business.
  • Impact - ensuring the cost was economical and viable for the community based on surveys determining how much money is spent purchasing candles, fuel and firewood for those without  electricity and ensuring the environmental impacts were minimized.

Another purpose of the trip was networking.  Josh and Kyle met with business leaders and government officials involved in picohydro work throughout the country.

picohydro 5Engaging Communities
In Shyira village, located in the northern part of Rwanda, the team met with Christophe Nziyonsenga.  (His last name means “I will pray” in Kinyarwandan, the national language.)  Christophe was in the equivalent of 9th or 10th grade when he lost his parents.  He couldn’t afford to go to school any longer and decided to work.  He took a technician training course in which he became familiar with repair of technical and auto parts.  He read books on hydro power and began creating his own system.  He now has constructed his own picohydro generation system that supplies electricity to his village.  He continues to work at making it more efficient.  Christophe’s system is an inspiration because it was put together using materials available locally, such as using wiring taken from automobile tires.

Kyle and Joshua were able to use Christophe’s example, as well as their own knowledge and research on affordable systems, to facilitate a community meeting that exceeded their expectations.  Jean de la Croix Ntivuguruzwa and Moises Ruhinda, the interns from the Rwanda National University facilitated and translated for this community meeting of 21 men and women who are teachers, farmers, government officials, laborers and businesspersons in Rushaki Town in Gicumbi district (North Rwanda).  At the beginning of the meeting, participants expressed excitement over the idea of picohydro, but they believed that their village had neither the financial resources nor the people with adequate training to maintain such a system.  

picohydro 6Kyle and Josh presented a basic course on picohydro systems, including ideas for innovative design and possibilities for utilizing materials built in Rwanda.  Once the community members began looking at ways to substitute Rwandan-built materials for expensive imports, they began coming up with possible substitutes based on what they knew was available.  Once they quantified the skills needed, they were able to identify several people in their village who already had the necessary skills to build and/or maintain a picohydro system.

As the meeting progressed, Josh, Kyle and the interns became spectators.  Meeting participants got excited by the possibilities they saw and began discussing how to get materials and people based on their own local knowledge.  This meeting represented a high point for both Josh and Kyle.  Although the residents did not build a picohydro system , this meeting produced a new sense of what is possible and new ideas on how they might proceed to attain electricity for their community.

Next Stepspico7
When Josh and Kyle returned to California they had gained a greater understanding of the importance of establishing a network with various stakeholders, from farmers to local politicians.  They had a clearer picture of the existing infrastructure for picohydro in Northern Rwanda.  They also had hands-on experience in site assessment using GPS tools and software.

Perhaps most important of all, by meeting people in Rwanda who are working on picohydro, Josh and Kyle gained a rich source of knowledge about energy use in Rwanda.  Combining that with their connections to professionals and educators at UC Davis will help them move forward with their mission to make electricity more accessible to rural Rwandans.  

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