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Bringing affordable, reliable and environmentally friendly energy to communities in the Brazilian Amazon

Micro Hydro Electricity

CEN believes an important aspect of empowerment involves freeing people from the external, systemic obstacles that prevent them from accomplishing their goals and overcoming poverty. One such obstacle that people face in the Brazilian Amazon is the lack of access to affordable, reliable electricity. Unfortunately, communities throughout this region face impediments to the improvement of their health, livelihoods, and quality of life because of this lack of electricity. Electricity is not only important to increasing their standard of living, but it is also vital to helping to strengthen the skills and resources they need to achieve economic and social development in their communities.

brazil-projects-tapajos webCEN is working to reduce this systemic obstacle with its project to build a micro-hydrokinetic electric generator along the Tapajós River in the Amazon. Micro-hydrokinetic energy is a low-impact, low-cost technology used in an increasing number of waterways around the world to generate affordable electricity with a minimal environmental footprint. This project will evaluate the feasibility of building one or more clean energy micro-hydrokinetic electric generators to meet the electricity needs of a set of communities near Suruacá (Suruacá, Vista Alegre, and Capixuã) and also the nearby communities of Surucuá, Nuquini and Nova Vista. If the feasibility of the project can be shown, we will build a pilot to serve the residents of these communities. Eventually, similar locally built generators could be used to provide affordable and reliable electricity for other communities throughout the region.

This project will positively impact the health, livelihoods and quality of life for local residents in these communities. Furthermore, it will provide them with the electricity they need to break the cycle of poverty and achieve long-term, sustainable development in the Brazilian Amazon.

The Problem


"I need electricity to operate a little lunch counter I've been dreaming about. Without electricity, I can't grill sandwiches. With the income I will earn, I can make a better life for my family."

— Djalma Lima, Suruacá resident


The 6,500 residents of the communities along the western shore of the Tapajós River, like hundreds of thousands of people throughout the Brazilian Amazon, live without reliable access to electricity. The current energy options available are not technically or economically feasible to use for more than a few hours a day. This leaves them without the reliable electricity that is essential to storing medicines, providing light to study by, operating the equipment needed to earn a living, and improving their quality of life in many other ways. Lack of access to electricity is a major constraint to rural economic growth and overall development. Electricity frees large amounts of human time and labor that can be used to develop skills or knowledge, to use electric tools and appliances necessary to expanding businesses, and to facilitate community health, education, and social projects. Thus, a lack of electricity prevents these communities not only from improving their standard of living, but also from accomplishing the social and economic development necessary to overcoming their poverty.

Project History and Background Information

Residents in communities surrounding the interior of the Amazon have no possibility of receiving centrally generated electricity because their isolation makes it uneconomical for power lines to reach them. Thus, only decentralized technology can meet their demand. The currently favored technologies for providing off-grid power are diesel generators, photovoltaic solar (PV solar), and wind energy. These options, however, are not always well-suited to the conditions faced by all communities, including the communities served by this project. For example, diesel generators expel pollutants that are hazardous to the environment and health of local residents and are not affordable for the communities to use for more than a few hours per night. It is therefore necessary to explore other options for economical, reliable, and environmentally sustainable sources of electricity.

Alaska micro-hydrokinetic generator For these reasons, CEN has chosen to evaluate the feasibility of using micro-hydrokinetic energy to provide these communities with electricity. This form of energy technology is well-suited to the communities, as they are located in the development hub on one of Brazil's largest rivers that offers considerable water flow. Placing hydrokinetic turbines in the river will use the flow of water to turn them, thus generating electricity for the power grid on nearby land. This form of energy technology is very advantageous for a number of reasons:

  • It does not need a dam or diversion. Therefore, it creates a minimal ecological footprint.
  • It is highly efficient, as water is the most efficient renewable energy source.
  • It can be easily and cheaply manufactured and installed using local people and resources, ensuring its sustainability.
  • It continually generates renewable energy 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Project Goal and Objectives

This project will focus on evaluating the feasibility of constructing and using one or more micro-hydrokinetic turbines to meet the electricity needs of people in the communities of Suruacá, Vista Alegre, Capixuã, Nuquini, and Nova Vista along the western short of the Tapajós River. We will do this by:

1. Determining the electricity-generating potential of the Tapajós River

  • CEN will measure and record the water flow of the river in several locations every two months over a 12-month period in collaboration with trained local community members

2. Analyzing the electricity needs of the local communities

  • CEN will determine the load factor (the amount of power used divided by the amount of power available) to ensure that their energy needs will be met

3. Assessing the sustainability of the project

  • CEN will identify the ideal way to ensure community ownership of the project so that it is under control of local people who build, own, run, maintain, and expand it

If the feasibility of the technology can be shown, we will build a pilot to serve members of these communities. The findings of this project could be applied to other communities as well. Eventually, other locally built, low-cost, environmentally friendly generators could be built throughout the region to provide the affordable, reliable electricity necessary to alleviate poverty and accomplish development in thousands of communities in the Brazilian Amazon.

Micro-Hydrokinetic Benefits

Upon successful completion of the objectives detailed above, CEN anticipates the following potential results for communities on the western shore of the Tapajós River:

  • Affordable, reliable and sustainable electricity generation
  • Improvements in quality of health, livelihood and standard of living
  • Minimal environmental and ecological impact
  • Reduction of a systemic obstacle that will allow people to work toward economic and social development in their communities

Activities and Findings

In February 2013, CEN and a small team of residents of the community of Suruacá conducted tests in the area and evaluated their findings:

  • After releasing a two-liter, partially submerged water bottle attached to a 20-meter cord, two people remained in a canoe about 10 meters downriver from the team in the canoe that released the bottle.
  • Someone in both canoes timed how long it took for the cord to become taut.
  • These measurements were compared to the measurements taken at various observation points.

Below are some of the measurements obtained during this process:

Location

Date

Time for 20-meter
cord to become taut (seconds)

Speed
(meters/second)

Water depth
(meters)

Conclusion

2.67960 S

55.16336 W

2/6/2013

124.45

0.160

1.5

 

2.677335 S

55.15852 W
(Tapajós)

2/6/2013

120.22

0.166

3.1

Approximately 1/10th the minimum velocity needed

The team also measured the current velocity at a site on a creek passing approximately 9 km from the community, to evaluate the feasibility of installing a small turbine to serve a few houses in the area.

2.66064 S 

55.24001 W

(Creek on Djalma Lima’s land,
approximately 9 km from the community) 

2/8/2013 

73.5

0.272

1.3 

(Approximately 4 meters wide)

Only about 1/6th to 1/7th the current velocity needed

 

Project Conclusion

Based on local observations and the measurements taken, the evaluation team concluded that micro-hydrokinetic technology is not a viable option to meet the community’s electricity needs at either site. Based on the measurements of the water current the team made along the Tapajós River near the community of Suruacá — and consistent reports by local fishermen and riverboat captains that the current speed near the community of Surucuá, approximately 50 kilometers to the south, were of similar speed to that near Suruacá — the team determined that it was not worth the additional expense to travel to Surucuá to take measurements.

Long-Term Energy Alternatives

Although CEN has concluded that a micro-hydrokinetic implementation is not a suitable option for meeting the electricity needs of either Suruacá or Surucuá, there are still several other long-term energy alternatives for the communities to pursue. These include:

Transmission Line

Constructing a transmission line from the expanded capacity planned at the micro-hydroelectric generator at the Cachoeira do Aruã, about 100 kilometers to the northwest of Suruacá: Unlike the much larger dams that are planned to the south, this installation has very limited environmental impact. While IBAMA (the Brazilian environmental agency) and the Ministry of Education support the project, financing for its construction has been delayed for a considerable time by the local electricity concessionaire. However, local agencies and nongovernmental organizations are continuing to attempt to address the obstacles.

Updated Generator

The community has petitioned the Prefecture of Santarem for a new 600 kVA diesel generator to replace the community’s current 30 kVA generator. The new generator would produce 20 times the current generator’s capacity — enough to account for many years of future growth — for less than 50% more fuel. The current proposal details using the new generator for the same number of hours as the current generator (four hours, three to four nights a week); however, it could become feasible to expand the number of hours over time. It is unlikely to be economically feasible to operate the generator 24 hours a day and seven days a week, as this would continue to be an obstacle for meeting key needs such as refrigeration and health.

Smaller Generators

Install small generators to be used for electricity needs during the hours when the community generator is not being used. Such an approach would be very costly for long-term use since the common small generators in use today consume over one liter per hour but serve only one family. It could be an option for situations, such as tooling and woodworking shops where the generators could be used only when needed.

Impact

Several positive outcomes did result from the project:

  1. Identified a locally designed and produced micro-hydrokinetic turbine with lower water current velocity requirements

    During consultations with a Santarém-based engineering firm, Indalma Industria & Comércio, CEN learned that they have developed a micro-hydrokinetic turbine rated to function efficiently with currents as low as one meter per second. While this would not be suitable for use on the Tapajós River near Suruacá, it might serve the needs of communities along the much more quickly flowing Amazon River or other parts of the Amazon. Indalma estimates the costs for meeting the electricity needs using their turbine designs to be between $3,500 to $5,000 USD per family, which is considered very reasonable.

  2. Addressed the challenge of seasonal river level variance along the Tapajós River for locating micro-hydrokinetic turbines

    During the dry season, the water level drops several meters and the river becomes narrower. It lowers over one kilometer compared to rainy season water levels. This requires the team to locate the turbine well over a kilometer from shore so that it doesn’t have to be moved or move it as the water recedes. If the turbine were moved, it would require someone to regularly monitor the water level and to relocate it several times a year, which is a process prone to potential mistakes. Permanently mooring a turbine on a platform away from the shoreline requires the team to ensure it isn’t a navigational hazard.

    Locating the turbine slightly off the riverbed offshore eliminates both problems and appears to be the most feasible solution.

    We concluded the most viable option for deepwater locations is to locate the turbine off the river bottom and to run an underground cable to the shore, using a solution developed by Indalma. One challenge with this solution is that the turbine needs to be located at a significant distance from the shoreline, which would require the use of a heavy gauge cable, leading to a significant increase in the project’s cost.

    Regardless of whether a turbine is installed permanently offshore or not, the need to locate the turbine over one kilometer from shore, for even part of the year, would require the use of higher gauge electric cables in order to prevent heavy loss of electricity.

  3. Documented the prevailing water current along the lower Tapajós River

  4. Further strengthened community experience and ability to manage infrastructure projects, especially energy

    Although the community developed an impressive ability to manage its current public infrastructure, it has not been closely involved in decisions effecting the provision of electricity to the community. Overall, community members are not well informed about the feasibility and obstacles to options available. 

    For example, about five years ago, CEN helped put the community in touch with a local engineering firm to investigate the feasibility of using a small waterfall about nine kilometers from the community to build a micro-hydroelectric dam. Although the engineer originally felt the project was potentially feasible, he later switched his opinion when more data became available. Community members have significantly different understandings of why the generator wasn’t built. Some understood that subsequent data changed the engineer’s opinion. Others felt the engineer didn’t care enough to execute the project. No one contacted the engineer to gain a full understanding, and the engineer didn’t sit down with the community to communicate his findings.  

    By closely involving the community leadership, and especially those members who are most responsible for managing the community’s energy infrastructure, we helped them better understand the detailed requirements. Together we determined that the proposal wasn’t feasible and why.

  5. Clarified for the community leaders why an earlier evaluation of a micro-hydroelectric project was deemed not to be feasible

    During discussions with community leaders, CEN Director Bob Bortner helped community leaders understand why an earlier micro-hydroelectric project was deemed unsuitable, as well as provided an update on the status of the possible construction of a transmission line to the Cachoeira do Aruã, and shared the information and contacts with the community leaders so they may follow up if needed.

Although we concluded that the water current along the Tapajós River is not strong enough for a micro-hydrokinetic turbine to operate efficiently, the project built upon our ongoing leadership development efforts in the community by closely involving community leaders in the discovery and evaluation process for accessing the electricity they need. Residents became active participants in the process rather than bystanders like they have been in the past.

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