Abra Malaga Five Gallon Bucket Hydroelectric Generator Installation. Peru, Summer 2013
I recently returned from six weeks in Peru with students from the State University of New York-Engineering for a Sustainable Society (SUNY ESF) department and their Environmental Resources Project team headed by Thomas Decker. We were there to install pico hydro bucket generators in the community of Abra Malaga in the Peruvian Andes. Our base was in Cusco, the former capital of the Inca empire, several hours by car from the installation site in Abra Malaga.
Cusco, former capital of the Inca Empire
As the beginning of the project grew closer, we finished our preparations, excited by the prospect of the adventure ahead, and boarded our flights for Peru. I had been to Cusco before. In the 1970′s, as a teenager, I had been to Cusco with my family for a hiking trip on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. I was curious as to what had changed over the some 35 years since I was last there.
- Machu Picchu
Asociacion Ecosistemas Andinos (ECOAN), an environmental NGO based in Cusco, would coordinate the project as envisioned by Brian Hettler from the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT). The scheme was launched over a year earlier when Brian approached Thomas Decker about implementing his ideas for installing the bucket generators in Abra Malaga. Thomas had been busy raising money for the project during the previous year and the date was set for August to begin work. The challenge was to build the bucket generators, sourcing almost all of the materials locally using only a parcel of neodymium magnets that we brought from the States. The magnets were for the Toyota alternator based permanent magnet alternator (PMA) that we were to use in the system.
Toyota alternator produced by Nippondenso ready for modification with Neodymium magnets.
Everything else for the generators would have to be found in Cusco.
After settling in, we bought a couple of cheap bicycles to get around with and started familiarizing ourselves with our surroundings. Things had changed quite a bit since I was there as a teenager. Cusco had more than doubled in size and a lot of the local culture that I had marveled at as a teenager had been diminished by modernity. The popularity of Machu Picchu, and interest in Inca culture in general, had greatly increased since my last visit and Cusco tourism had become a major engine for the Peruvian economy. Our first week in Cusco was devoted to sourcing the hardware and electronics for the generator. There would be PVC piping, nuts and bolts, sheet metal, a charge controller, inverter, battery and the Toyota alternator that we would modify with neodymium magnets for the generator.
PVC couplings, ready for assembly.
We found a machine shop to machine the parts for the new rotor and a a motor rewind shop to rewind the stator for the modified Toyota alternator.
The machine shop was a colorful place.
At night we sat together and painstakingly cut the 12 sided dodecagon laminates that make up the core of the rotor inside the alternator.
Cutting sheet metal dodecagons with the team.
As I dug deeper, past the tourist districts in Cusco, I discovered that in fact much was the same as I had remembered. Though a great deal of wealth had been created in Cusco in recent years from tourism and mineral extraction, the plight of the poor farmer had changed very little. A visit to the produce markets reveals a culture still steeped in its traditions and struggling to get by with limited resources.
Life hasn’t change much for most.
As the materials for the generator started to come together we visited the site for the installation in Abra Malaga. The trip to the site involved crossing a high plateau covered with ancient Inca terracing and descending into the Sacred Valley of the Incas.
A beautiful plateau on the way to the mountains.
As we made our way toward Abra Malaga through the Sacred Valley and beyond we were struck by the magnificent scenery of the high Andes.
The high Andes.
Ascending a series of terrifying switchbacks that seemed to go on forever, we finally reached Abra Malaga perched high in the mountains.
Looking down the valley from Abra Malaga.
Set close to the glaciers, the community of Abra Malaga produces a variety of vegetables, principally potatoes, and raises sheep, alpaca and lamas. It is a terrifying and beautiful landscape characterized by steep granite cliffs and stone and thatch houses that appear as if born of the landscape.
Stone houses in Abra Malaga.
After meeting with the community to discuss the logistics of the project, our team, led by local community members and ECOAN’s team from Cusco, began to scout sites for the weir, pipeline and generator for the installation.
Meeting with the community in Abra Malaga.
Brian Hettler, of ACT, had surveyed the rivers and streams in the area the previous year and we began visiting the sites that he had logged. The site would have to have enough vertical drop and flow to power the generator and be close enough to people’s houses to make the generator practical. Envisioned as a charging station for LED headlamps, radios and cell phones, there would be no power runs to people’s houses. For economy, the system would use a single standard automotive battery, not the typical bank of expensive deep cycle batteries. The car battery would serve as a giant capacitor more than a storage system. After visiting several sites, we settled on a location that had close proximity to several houses and the flow and vertical drop necessary to power the generator.
Looking down on the generator site. Thomas
Decker surveys the location for the pipeline.
The site was not ideal, as our goal was to find a location with 30 meters of vertical drop with the shortest run of pipe possible. A significant cost in the system is the pipeline that feeds the generator. Other locations had steeper grades with sufficient flow to power the generator but could not be justified as they were too far from peoples houses. It was settled upon to install the generator next to Fortunado’s house, a leader of the community who expressed an interest in maintaining the generator.
With the location settled, we celebrated the prospect of the new installation with a couple of bottles of the local brew.
A celebratory beer was in order.
Upon our return to Cusco we continued to make progress with the generators. Building the turbines, modifying the Toyota alternator, and fitting out the bucket lid with the manifold that feeds the generators with water.
New alternator rotor with Neodymium magnets.
We were getting close to completion of the modification of the Toyota alternator with the new rotor for the alternator complete and the stator for the alternator rewound. After affixing the neodymium magnets to the rotor we installed the rotor and stator in the alternator. Ready to test the newly modified alternator we ran into trouble. The machinists that we used weren’t the best but they were fast and cheap. When we tried to test the new alternators they wouldn’t turn. Building the cores for the rotors was the most labor intensive aspect of the generator build. A subtle drift in the drill bit that bore out the core of the rotor had cocked the core on the rotor sufficient to render the tight tolerances inside the alternator too tight.
New rotor inside the alternator.
Thomas and the team from Syracuse were getting close to their return date. We were hoping to complete the generators before they left. WIth only a couple of days left in their time in Cusco this new setback left everyone discouraged. After discussing what to do we settled on a plan. We would bore out the cores to a larger diameter and machine a sleeve that would set the cores straight on the rotors. Not the best solution but the only one that we had. As the Student team packed for their return to the States I felt a sense of disappointment at having come so far and potentially scuttling the project by not paying enough attention to the machinists work. We said our goodbyes and as I fell asleep that night I promised myself that I would make things right. The following day I returned to the machine shop and explained the problem to the machinists. Using my broken Spanish and the drawings that we had put together the night before, they began work.
By the following evening they were finished and the rotors were reassembled and ready for testing. As I installed the rotors in the alternators I was filled with a combination of anticipation and dread. They turned freely. Did they actually produce electricity? I connected a voltage meter to the first of the alternators. With a quick spin of my hand I was producing 24 volts! Not bad!
I had stayed longer in Peru for just such a situation and with the alternator problem solved, I continued my work. In a few days the generators were complete and ready for installation.
The generators ready for installation.
After a few more visits to Abra Malaga we decided to move the pipeline to a slightly better location nearby. The current location was difficult to work in and we were having a hard time getting a straight run of pipe to the location of the generator.
The pipeline had to be moved.
It was time for me to leave Peru. With the future of the project still uncertain I boarded my flight home with a heavy heart at not seeing the project complete but optimistic that our Peruvian partners could get the job done.
It was hard to concentrate on the other work in my life for those first few weeks back in the States. The project that we had devoted so much time and energy to was still unfinished. We learned a lot of lessons on the trip and despite the setbacks we were pretty confident that the system would work. But what if it didn’t work? I felt personally responsible for leading everyone down the road that we had taken and the failure of the project was inconceivable to me. We all had so much invested in the project that failure was not an option. When I finally received an email from Thomas Decker I was, to say the least, concerned. Word had come from Peru. The system was fully operational and charging LED headlamps, radios and cell phones in Abra Malaga!
A headlamp charged by the generator.
Special thanks to SUNY- Syracuse based Peru team members Jessica Straub and Ross Mazur, without who’s tireless efforts this project couldn’t have been possible.
Sam Redfield, November 2013.
As of November 2013 the generator is still operational with additional installations in the works for 2014.
Below is a link for the Appropriate Technology Development Group(AIDG) blog where Sam Redfield discusses his installation in La Florida Guatemala.