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Blog 12: A solar home survey in Alumar

posted Mar 26, 2012, 3:25 AM by William Hong   [ updated Apr 11, 2012, 3:04 PM by Thomas Geissmann ]
(2012 - March 26)

Blogger: William
Journey: Survey visit to Alumar, Bohol, Philippines

Our latest island adventure took us back to Barangay Alumar in Bohol, Philippines. Thanks to the support of the GCOE program of TokyoTech, we had the opportunity to augment our research data gathering for the solar homes systems situated in this rural islands. In this episode, we collected not only precious data but also invaluable ideas for our future works in ruralenergy.org.

We started our mission with a visit to the DOE-Visayas office where I had my internship; that experience always seems like coming back to a second home. We had a good discussion with Mam Lou Arciaga, and later on Engr.Jun Baclay, to improve our approach in data gathering and analysis. The next few days would be spent for our island visit. The pictures to the right helps us imagine (or recall) the sights we see in visiting an island. One thing would be the vast ocean. The trip to the nearest port, Jetafe, has been shortened to an hour by the new and faster boat service, Starcraft. I had to settle for the traditional 2.5 hour boat ride though since trips were not as frequent. I would savor this trip though. As we near the island, I once again got a glimpse of the house that stands right in the middle of the sea. I wonder how the people there can stand having nothing but water as a backyard; there is even a dog in that household. Armed with our backpack full of supplies, we would spend some fruitful days in the island. 

Our first order of business was to plan our events and survey process. Thanks to our local contact, Roldan Salabao, I was able to get meaningful discussions and planning sessions for the survey. Roldan has a good background on electronics and has been keeping his SHS in top shape through the years. If there is a local guy that understands the SHS from wire to wire, this would be the guy. Our visit this time would focus on the technical condition of the SHS in each household; a hefty load it seems, considering there are 50 households with SHSs. Local support, however, allows many things. After planning out the exact details of what and how to check, we would ask the help of the 3 technicians that are maintaining the solar home systems. We split the tasks to be accomplished in a few days of work.

To understand the process better I visited a few of the homes myself. Most households are made of light bamboo and nipa (local palm leaves) materials. It is still a mysterious sight seeing a very primitive house having a sophisticated solar home system powering its lights. In any case, our objective was to assess and score the users on how well they have maintained their SHS system through the years. We would check the connections and conditions of the loads, battery and charge controller. The loads are the first to be checked. Many of the loads (usually lighting) are often placed in positions which are susceptible to grounding. This is especially true for houses with roofs that are not as waterproof to begin with. Also, loads which exceed the capacity of the system are not recommendable in the long term. Poorly situated and excessive loads point to low awareness and knowledge of the user in caring for the system. The next to be checked would be the charge controller which needs proper usage and cleaning. Properly-cared-for charge controllers are visibly cleaner and properly connected. The final part to be checked would be the battery(s). Not only should these be placed in the right location for safety, batteries also need to be cleaned and replenished with distilled water to function properly. The deep cycle batteries initially provided for the systems have been replaced after 2 to 3 years service. Assessing the conditions of the system components help us understand the capacity and willingness of the user to maintain and sustain their SHS for the long term. With the help of the local technicians, each of the 50 households were checked and scored.

While visiting the households I got to find the alternative power supplies they are using. These always catch my attention since ruralenergy.org focuses on screening out these alternatives for more efficient means. Aside from the traditional kerosene lamp, one common light source is the waterproof flashlight which they use to go fishing at night. The local fishermen have gotten used to the heavy and handheld design which I doubt has truly been designed for fishing. In any case, this particular type uses up 4 size D 1.5V batteries (P22 each) in a weeks time. In this case, it costs about P88 pesos per week. Not only is this expensive, the used-up batteries accumulate to waste and health hazards. If we can find a way to replace this lighting system with rechargeable waterproof lamps then we are in business. The search continues for our wonder lamp! Our technical visit keeps my mind thinking for better alternatives.
 
Talking about business, the season for seaweeds was slowly coming back. Seaweeds farming is the main source of livelihood in the island; where about 90% of the households engage in it. Although seaweeds are seasonal in nature, the culturing and farming takes place year round as the supply chain needs an endless cycle of planting, harvesting, and replanting. A typical life of a seaweed starts with stemming and planting. The seedlings (as they term it) are simply cut from a bigger stalk of seaweeds which were previously grown. These stalks are tied into rows of ropes with floaters in the open sea. Seaweeds grow double or triple their size in 45 days time at good conditions (windy times with strong current flows). When the seaweeds grow enough in size, these are harvested by hand and are dried in open air and sunlight. It takes a few days to a week for these seaweeds to completely dry up. These are then sacked and readied for selling. Local buyers come in boats to gather the seaweed supply which sells about PhP40 to 50 per kilo. These are then traded locally or internationally for various usage. Alumar Island has been blessed with good conditions for seaweeds farming which has provided a happy way of life for the island people.

The times I spent in the island(s) are memories I would cherish for life. I felt at home living there, eating the local food, sleeping in the local beds, and waking up to the local sunshine that would give the island and its people the energy to live. I have come to learn many things about rural life through this visit which no book can every explain. Tacit knowledge, as they say, are those things learned not through writings or stories, but are rather learned only by experience. While we engineers try to connect the people to technologies that would enrich their lives, the energy and hospitality of these people connect us back to what life, in its simplest essence, is all about. This journey was set to explore the capacity and willingness of users to sustain a renewable energy system. In return, the lessons expanded my capacity and willingness to understand the simple and immeasurable happiness these rural people live with everyday. 

The tides have changed. We no longer try to bring energy to the rural areas; rather, we shall look for and harness the energy that are found in the rural areas! 

Until then,

William
 

A technical visit to the solar home systems of Alumar

 a house in the seaA house needing solar?

 
Our boatman 
 
Backpack traveler


A house with solar (SHS)

 

 
 
Dangerously placed loads
 
Can solar power these?
  
Testing the panel output through
the charge controller
 
Testing the battery output
 
Deep cycle battery for SHS
 
Alternative light source
(water proof!)
 
Non-rechargeable batteries
(expensive)
 
Kerosene lamp if nothing else 
 

The seaweed farming cycle

 
Plant the seaweeds in rows
(windy time is best)
 
Wait for 45 days till harvest
 
Dry the seaweeds 
(a few days)


Dry further if needed

 
 
 
Bag the dried weeds 
 
Sell to local market