Years before Green Empowerment’s Open Source campaign to design smarter more reliable microgrids, partner engineers were tinkering with circuits to make the technology work. Working across vast geographic differences such as Malaysia, the Philippines, Italy, and the UK, engineers collaborated to solve load distribution problems that were limiting the adoption of community owned clean energy systems such as micro-hydro powered grids.

Micro-hydro systems generate electricity by diverting a small amount of running water through a turbine. This powers homes, schools, and businesses not connected to a central or regional grid. A load distribution system is essential for striking a balance between the demand for electricity and the power supplied through the system. When the balance is off, the power goes out. Electronic Load Controllers (ELCs) monitor the demand and, as the name suggests, control power supply without overloading. But ELCs are technologically tricky to make, install, and maintain and are often produced by corporations at high prices. “Our field community practitioners can figure out the nuts and bolts of other components in micro-hydro systems, but ELCs are sophisticated,” says Gabriel Wynn, Asia Regional Advisor, Green Empowerment.

Since 2013, Green Empowerment and its regional partners have been developing solutions to the load distribution problem. This work has relied on knowledge-sharing via the Hydro Empowerment Network (HPNET), a multi-actor knowledge exchange platform advancing community-based micro hydropower. It was during HPNET’s first gathering of practitioners that members began to consider the concept of an open-source ELC.  In 2014, with support from the Wisions SEPS, HPNET conducted an in-depth study on the topic which confirmed a real need in the field for an open-source ELC that could be assembled, maintained, and repaired locally.

The open-source model would lower the cost of production, ease access to training, and give practitioners the ability to add new features and capabilities through collaboration with other smart grid developers. This solution solved the load distribution problem, empowered communities to learn design and maintenance skills, and encouraged South to South knowledge sharing.

“ELCs were the Achilles heel of the micro-hydro system. Once we settled on an open-source solution, we could virtually provide access anywhere with the capability to replicate,” says Wynn. In 2017-18, Sibat in the Philippines, with the support of Engineers Without Borders UK finalized its first open-source ELC.  Green Empowerment then supported technology transfer to Malaysia for TONIBUNG‘s micro-hydro work.  Since then, these local partners have installed open-source ELC designs in seven remote villages in Malaysian Borneo and the Philippines and are currently leading the manufacture of ten more ELCs. Local practitioners from India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Burma have also participated in trainings on this model.

“I enjoy tinkering with circuits, and an open-source ELC design provided me an opportunity to hone in on an iteration that works and implement that in the field,” says Dan Frydman, project engineer for Green Empowerment. But Dan cautions that when it comes to technology, the work is never complete. There have been many iterations of ELCs since, and there will be more to come. With open-source, a good idea can always be made better.

Green Empowerment is currently raising funds for a campaign that will help its partners improve the current design and make ELCs smarter. More specifically, the new model will minimize service interruptions during peak use and automatically turn loads (i.e. appliances) on and off during the 24-hour power cycle each day.

To make these smart grid for small grid solutions both possible and scalable, Green Empowerment will depend on freely accessible knowledge-sharing. All design materials will be published online. Beyond impact with specific regional partners, a major goal in making this work open-source is to encourage other practitioners from across the world to modify designs and share their new solutions with the global community.

In-field practitioners and regional partners are leading the journey to improved load distribution in off-the-grid micro-hydro systems. Their work needs support, especially by those who believe that engineers who tinker with tech make a difference.

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