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Ingenious energy solutions in Afghanistan

On a recent trip to Afghanistan, Concern engineer Daire O'Broin was impressed by the ingenuity of the local people in providing electricity to rural and isolated communities. This article appeared in the March edition of The Engineers Journal, a publication of The Institution of Engineers of Ireland.

Daire O’Broin is one of the Concern’s most important “back-room” people. His area of competence has nothing to do with hunger and poverty statistics. Nor is he involved in food, water or any of the programmes that spring to mind when it comes to talk about what aid agencies do in the developing world. Instead the Clane man plays a pivotal role in making sure that in all 28 countries around the world where Concern is working have a reliable and safe electricity supply.

Fifty-seven-year-old Daire has spent most of his working life with ESB, so when it comes to all matters electric, he knows what he is talking about. His job with Concern takes him all over the world and while he is visiting Concern posts he also has the chance to see and learn something about electricity generation in developing countries.

Ingenious solutions

He has recently returned from Afghanistan where he has been profoundly moved by the genius of the local people in providing electricity to rural and isolated communities.

Daire explains that in the Afghan capital, where Concern has an office, there is utility or city power, which is supplied through large utility generators. But in the north in the city of Taloqan, where Concern has its hub office for eight sub offices and team houses, there is no "town electricity". Indeed, right across the north of Afghanistan there is no utility electricity. So it is a matter of people generating their own electricity supply.

Unique approach

He continued: “What I have seen of how people are generating their own electricity has to be unique in the world. Power is generated and supplied from small water powered turbo-generators called MicroHydro generators.

“These consist of a water supply canal, fed into a turbine which are all of the impulse or paddle type, ranging from turbines that look like old water wheels to more compact enclosed paddle types. These machines may be horizontal or vertically mounted with load controlled by diverting water away from the paddles or at the entry.” 

Daire noted: “They build the machines themselves. Yes, they are rudimentary but tough. There are dozens of these MicroHydro stations dotted around the north of the country. Many of these schemes are currently fund-aided by US Aid via the National Security Programme (NSP). Concern act as administrators of this fund and have assisted with the design of many of these machines.

“The Afghans are great with irrigation. One of the things that is in abundance in the country is water, mountain water, and they manage to divert this water into the hydro turbines to generate electricity.

“They make the turbines themselves in local workshops and the generators are generally of Chinese origin. Much of the cable used in the distribution system comes from Iran. The output is generally between 20 and 100kws and there is no frequency or voltage control. The power is generally utilised in low power equipment such as lighting, TVs and telephone systems. This MicroHydro power supplies groups from small communities up to entire villages. Power is distributed via pole mounted village distribution networks with little protection installed against accidental occurrences.”

Daire explains: “Because of the voltage loss in low voltage systems such as these, the maximum distance from any of the supply source to its destination is always short. It really has opened my eyes and it is so ingenious. I have never seen the likes of it before."

Turning tanks into turbines

In one installation he has seen bits and pieces from an old Russian tanks, which were utilised to couple the turbine and generator, including the gearing: “They used a wheel from an old cereal grinding mill coupled via gearboxes and shafts from a tracked tank. The same technology used 2,000 years ago to grind corn is being used today to generate electricity.

“The difference now is that the same wheel used for grinding is now utilised for generation. It so happens that there is no Taliban in this part of Afghanistan. In fact they were strongly resisted during that era and would not be welcome here in the future." Daire reckons that many thousands people get their electricity from these MicroHydro stations.

He is somewhat surprised that no big company has turned up to build turbines. With the abundant supply of water it is probably only time before larger scale hydro power is installed to supply utility power to the larger towns. The question he concluded with is – who will do this?

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