Micro hydropower is bringing light to remote Afghan villages, writes Master Sgt. Michael O'Connor
It’s been 411 years since English scientist William Gilbert first coined the term “electricity,” but still today, people around the world including those in remote areas of Afghanistan are still without it, and while electricity is not a religion, it has proven to be a life changer.
In Afghanistan, a US Army Corps of Engineers project to train, manufacture and install micro-hydropower plants in isolated Afghan villages is slowly transforming the culture of Afghans and putting them on the grid. It’s about flipping on the switch at the lowest level of governance and enabling them as a people to change their lives and enhance their ability to follow through.
“I was here in the beginning when hydropower was just an idea, did the survey work and presented it to the Army Corps of Engineers,” said Owen Schumacher, President of Remote HydroLight, a native of South Dakota who’s been building micro-hydropower plants for 15 of the 18 years he’s lived and worked out of Kabul, Afghanistan. “I was here back when they didn’t have electricity here in Kabul for some years and I know how depressing it can be.”
Micro hydro construction
Funded by Commander’s Emergency Response Program, the USACE awarded a contract in 2006 to Remote HydroLight and Engineering Associates to construct 105 units in seven of 34 Afghan provinces.
“Projects like these [gain] the trust of the Afghan government and promote civil infrastructure improvements that directly impact positively with villagers’ lives,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Joel VanEssen, an Afghanistan-Pakistan Hands Program officer assigned to the USACE.
Based in Kabul, the contractors train and cooperate with private workshops to produce micro-hydropower equipment that can be transported to the sites. And because everything, with the exception of the alternators is built in Afghanistan, it keeps upkeep and maintenance costs low.
While buy-in on the project by local elders is vital to the project success, VanEssen said village cooperation is key to a plant’s future.
Once a project is approved, the villagers are responsible for carrying the equipment to its place of use. This often means long hours hauling parts on mules up through mountains on foot-only paths to their villages. In many cases, because the people know what the end result is and how it will benefit their lives, they work free of charge and bring necessary sand, rock and gravel to complete the job.
The locals do most of the monitoring of the power usage, keep the canal clean and grease the bearings regularly, while Schumacher’s staff of 10-15 skilled Afghan workers are trained on the units and can take care of all the internal repairs to the equipment.
To ensure everyone is charged accurately for their usage, he said meters were installed on the homes of the 200 families in the village, and for those without meters, average monthly usage is based on the number of light bulbs in the home. The monthly usage fees thus far have paid for routine maintenance and parts.
Today, more and more Afghans living in remote villages in Baghlan, Kunar, Nangarhar, Nuristan, Panjshir, Parwan and Wardak provinces are now receiving power to their households for the first time with the last unit in Parwan nearing completion.
In Daste Riwat, Panjshayr province, located about five hours north of Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul, the villagers have been getting their electricity from the Panjshayr River since January 2009.
“Whatever could’ve gone wrong with the project, has gone wrong,” said Schumacher, “however the villagers have really done well to overcome these challenges and keep the plant running.”
The energy extracted from the water is then put into alternators which in-turn produce electricity and is sent out to the villagers and used for lights, cooking, watching TV, heating water for such purposes as washing clothes, bathing and various other reasons—just like people do in the West, said Schumacher.
“The people here are very happy about the electricity,” said Malay Ghalam Galani, the Daste Riwat school religious elder who donated some of his land to the village so everyone could reap the benefits of the project. “With electricity, they have access to many things. It has brought brightness into the home and this is a very good thing.”
Having seen how this project has transformed his village, Galani said he would like to see more projects like this that benefit his people and is willing to donate more of his land to businesses willing to invest in their future.
“These types of projects can flourish in peaceful provinces like Panjshayr and bring not only work for the people, but power too,” said Schumacher. “By utilizing a local workforce, some of the benefits of this project included employment, sustainability, lower costs, pride of workmanship, and quick response to repairs.”
One of Remote HydroLight”™s standard production cross flow water turbines has been tested at the Waterpower Laboratory of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway. This is the first time a water turbine, manufactured in Afghanistan, was officially tested in a professional hydraulic laboratory.
Remote HydroLight is involved in the training, manufacturing and installing of micro-hydropower plants throughout Afghanistan. Its hydropower services help private workshops and villages to build community owned and maintained electric power plants.