April 21, 08
Volunteer Engineers Design Wind Turbine For Off-The-Grid Villages

A group of volunteer engineers from America are finishing the design for a self designed wind turbine that will supply electricity to off-the-grid Guatemalan villages by this summer.

After the U.S. engineers finish the design, local workers in the town of Quetzaltenango will manufacture the small-scale turbine. It will produce 10-15 watts of electricity, enough to charge a 12-volt battery that can power simple devices like LED lights.

"They're replacing kerosene lamps, if anything at all," said Matt McLean, a mechanical engineer by day and leader of the wind-turbine project by night. "The biggest driver is just keeping the cost way down. We're shooting for under $100, which is a challenge, but we're in that range."

The effort comes amidst recent efforts to bring new light and power to small towns in the developing world. An estimated 1.6 billion people worldwide are without electricity, and many of them are forced to light their homes with kerosene. Using one of these lamps is like smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, says the World Bank, and the lamps present a significant fire risk. That's why many startup companies, such as d.Light, are trying to bring cheaper LED lights to homes, but they still need a solution for producing power locally.

Unlike the large-scale assemblies found in wind farms, the roughly two-foot-wide and three-foot-tall turbine has a vertical axis. McLean said that orientation worked better in the choppy conditions likely to meet the turbine out in the field, where it'll be bolted on to buildings, towers or even trees.

The turbine, which Fleming refers to as a "she," is undergoing its final tweaks. The prototype will undergo its next-to-last build before Fleming and another volunteer head down to the Guatemalan manufacturing facility, XelaTeco, with the building plans in hand.

XelaTeco, for its part, received seed funding from the Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group, a nonprofit dedicated to incubating for-profit businesses in developing countries. AIDG's goal is not just to bring cheap wind-powered generators to Guatemalan villages, but also to build self-sustaining businesses that are well integrated with the local economy.

"For us, this is hopefully the start of a lot more projects like this in other areas as we start more businesses," said Peter Haas, executive director of the AIDG.