Solar Roots

Provide training and equipment for renewable energy sources in low-income communities and developing nations.
Dec 6, 2016

Update on the new Burma

Learning how to use multi-meters.
Learning how to use multi-meters.

 

            As we approach the beginning of 2017, I feel that I owe our supporters an update on what is happening in Burma (Myanmar) since the movement towards democracy took hold in 2011.

            In that year, Thein Sein, an ex-military general, took over as President of a nominally civilian government, after 50 years of military rule. Things began to improve – some political prisoners were released, labor unions were allowed, press censorship was lifted and construction of the much-protested Myitsone hydro dam was put on hold. However, the 2008 Constitution, written by the military government, reserved a majority of seats in parliament for themselves, pre-empting any change in the Constitution by democratic means. They also reserved the right to declare martial law and take over from the civilian government when they deemed it necessary.

            In 2012, Aung San Su Kyi was elected to a seat in parliament and her party, the National League for Democracy, (NLD), swept the board in local by-elections. After many years under house arrest, Aung San Su Kyi, was now free to meet foreign diplomats and lead the nation in its struggle towards democracy. In November 2015 the NLD won a landslide election result and formed a government with Aung San Su Kyi at its head, even if she was barred from becoming President by the imfamous 2008 Constitution.

            So much for the historical record – but how do these changes affect the ordinary Burmese citizen, the person that Solar Roots is committed to working with? Although the country is opening up to foreign investment and importation of manufactured goods from outside, there seems to be little improvement in the economic lot of the average subsistence farmer. There is much construction in the cities and the urban economy seems to be flourishing, but, around 75% of the rural population still have no access to the national electricity grid. There is interest in providing electricity to remote villages through a series of independent mini-girds which will generate their power from renewable sources such as solar or hydro and this is a welcome change in policy direction.

            How about peace between the Burman majority and the many ethnic and religious minorities that has been so elusive since independence in 1947? I’m afraid that there is still a long way to go. The Muslim Rohingya people are still under assault from the military and indeed from their Buddhist neighbors. The Christian Kachin ethnic group is back in open conflict with the army after years of cease-fire and there are frequent reports of clashes between smaller groups such as the Kokang and the Wa with the Tatmadaw (Burmese military). These last-mentioned conflicts are fueled by the illicit drug trade, which is growing again. Just as the new political conditions have led to some Buddhist monks inciting race-based violence, they have also led to increased opium production. Unfortunately, there is a new problem of sky-high addiction rates of local youth, since heroin is now being refined in-country, whereas before, just the raw opium was exported.

            So, as you can see, it’s a mixed bag. A very important historical corner has been turned and it seems almost unthinkable that the democratic gains could be reversed. But there still remains a long way to go. I have confidence that the resourcefulness and resilience of the Burmese people will continue to help them weather what is, still a difficult and trying time. I also hope that Solar Roots can play a positive role in the new emerging country of Burma.

            If you like our work please consider making another donation to support the several projects that we have lined up for next year.    

            Best wishes for 2017,

            Bruce Gardiner

Our PV class in Taungoo.
Our PV class in Taungoo.
Bullock cart seen from train.
Bullock cart seen from train.
A temple in southern Shan state.
A temple in southern Shan state.
Horse and buggy in my new adopted home.
Horse and buggy in my new adopted home.
Colonial buildings - rehab or knock down?
Colonial buildings - rehab or knock down?
Dec 6, 2016

Update on the new Burma

Elderly lady, her cat and few possessions.
Elderly lady, her cat and few possessions.

 

            As we approach the beginning of 2017, I feel that I owe our supporters an update on what is happening in Burma (Myanmar) since the movement towards democracy took hold in 2011.

            In that year, Thein Sein, an ex-military general, took over as President of a nominally civilian government, after 50 years of military rule. Things began to improve – some political prisoners were released, labor unions were allowed, press censorship was lifted and construction of the much-protested Myitsone hydro dam was put on hold. However, the 2008 Constitution, written by the military government, reserved a majority of seats in parliament for themselves, pre-empting any change in the Constitution by democratic means. They also reserved the right to declare martial law and take over from the civilian government when they deemed it necessary.

            In 2012, Aung San Su Kyi was elected to a seat in parliament and her party, the National League for Democracy, (NLD), swept the board in local by-elections. After many years under house arrest, Aung San Su Kyi, was now free to meet foreign diplomats and lead the nation in its struggle towards democracy. In November 2015 the NLD won a landslide election result and formed a government with Aung San Su Kyi at its head, even if she was barred from becoming President by the infamous 2008 Constitution.

            So much for the historical record – but how do these changes affect the ordinary Burmese citizen, the person that Solar Roots is committed to working with? Although the country is opening up to foreign investment and importation of manufactured goods from outside, there seems to be little improvement in the economic lot of the average subsistence farmer. There is much construction in the cities and the urban economy seems to be flourishing, but, around 75% of the rural population still have no access to the national electricity grid. There is interest in providing electricity to remote villages through a series of independent mini-girds which will generate their power from renewable sources such as solar or hydro and this is a welcome change in policy direction.

            How about peace between the Burman majority and the many ethnic and religious minorities that has been so elusive since independence in 1947? I’m afraid that there is still a long way to go. The Muslim Rohingya people are still under assault from the military and indeed from their Buddhist neighbors. The Christian Kachin ethnic group is back in open conflict with the army after years of cease-fire and there are frequent reports of clashes between smaller groups such as the Kokang and the Wa with the Tatmadaw (Burmese military). These last-mentioned conflicts are fueled by the illicit drug trade, which is growing again. Just as the new political conditions have led to some Buddhist monks inciting race-based violence, they have also led to increased opium production. Unfortunately, there is a new problem of sky-high addiction rates of local youth, since heroin is now being refined in-country, whereas before, just the raw opium was exported.

            So, as you can see, it’s a mixed bag. A very important historical corner has been turned and it seems almost unthinkable that the democratic gains could be reversed. But there still remains a long way to go. I have confidence that the resourcefulness and resilience of the Burmese people will continue to help them weather what is, still a difficult and trying time. I also hope that Solar Roots can play a positive role in the new emerging country of Burma.

            If you like our work please consider making another donation to support the several projects that we have lined up for next year.    

            Best wishes for 2017,

            Bruce Gardiner

Some of the 1,000 boys who live at this monstery
Some of the 1,000 boys who live at this monstery
Our homemade bricks for the stoves.
Our homemade bricks for the stoves.
A prototype institutional stove in action.
A prototype institutional stove in action.
Sule Pagoda, soon to be surrounded by skyscrapers.
Sule Pagoda, soon to be surrounded by skyscrapers.
Finishing one of our small Rocket stoves.
Finishing one of our small Rocket stoves.
Sep 9, 2016

Stove Camp 2016

John with his diesel from plastic retort
John with his diesel from plastic retort

 

            It’s Summertime again and Thida and I have returned from Burma for another 6 months in Northern California. Like last year, we made the journey up to Cottage Grove, Oregon for the annual Stove Camp event. But this year was different – there were 3 separate stove-related events – all back-to-back. It was true StoveFest for two weeks!

            First was Stove Summit, which was held at the headquarters of InStove, the makers of large institutional sized stoves and co-hosted by Stove Team International. This event had over a dozen separate presentations and workshops and it was often difficult to select between competing options. I met many old friends in the stove world and in addition made several new contacts, which is always exciting. I enjoy these events so much because they always inspire me to keep on going in the field and they provide me with new ideas from folks that are trying them out around the world.

            Notable presentations for me were by Vahid of International LifeLine Fund, who has more than 20 years experience in the NGO field, and Dale on “Designing Practical Stoves”. There were also very informative panel discussions on local production of stoves and how to get funding for your stove project. There were a few demonstrations too, the most novel of which was by John of the University of Kentucky, who showed us how to make diesel fuel from plastic, using a retort, heated by a rocket stove. All in all, the First Annual Stove Summit was a great success and we look forward to next year’s event with anticipation.

            Then it was on to Stove Camp 2016 at the Aprovecho Research Center. Usually there are about 30 or so attendees, but this year, it only attracted around 10 participants. Most of the attendees had their own stove to “put under the hood”, that is, to test for level of emissions and pollutants, so although small, it was a hard-core group! Thida and I didn’t have a stove to test, so we floated between different groups. As usual, I enjoyed working with Larry Winiarski, the inventor of the Rocket Stove, who this year was working on a cyclone incinerator.

            During this Stove Camp I increasingly felt that stove development is not where my passion lies. I can’t get too excited about focusing exclusively on one design of stove to reach the now extremely rigorous emissions standards. I began to feel that I should put stoves on the back burner, as it were, and begin to explore other aspects of the biomass burning conundrum. I began to think of where the majority of fuelwood comes from – primary (old growth) forests. OK, we accept that 2 billion people will rely on biomass for their stove into the near and middle future – but do we have to accept that this fuel will come from primary forests? Could we not prioritize the planting of forests and woodlands specially for fuelwood? I know some people are doing this, but in Burma, very few indeed. I have always felt a great affinity with trees and both my house in California and the one in Burma are set in the middle of the forest and woodland. Who knows where this new inspiration will lead me. I will keep on giving trainings in stove building, but my focus will be wider.

            The last event that we attended in Oregon was the first West coast Biochar Convergence. Biochar is something of a new subject area for me, although, not entirely foreign. I was aware of biochar through my friends who are developing TLUD gasifier stoves that produce charcoal as a by-product. Briefly, charcoal is beneficial as a soil amendment. It absorbs and holds water, air and nutrients, making them available to plants. Charcoal works best in soil if it is composted with other organic matter first. Composting makes it more compatible with soil. When we add charcoal to soil it becomes biochar. Since the planet is suffering from a surfeit of carbon dioxide, many people are looking for ways to sequester carbon in the ground, to remove it from the equation. If it can buried in the form of charcoal and this is beneficial for soil fertility, then we have a win-win situation. The production of charcoal for fuel in developing countries is a notoriously polluting business and the last thing we want to do is produce more CO2 and pollutants while trying to mitigate climate change! So, in short, Biochar is a controversial issue. Its proponents claim that it can significantly reduce CO2 levels and at the same time increase soil fertility. Its critics say that it’s fertility benefits are unproven and it might even increase CO2 levels. As with most revolutionary and disruptive technologies, the jury is out for the meantime. But it is a subject that I wish to pursue and I can already see applications for it in our Burma work.

            So, after two weeks of breathing smoke, getting our hands and faces sooty and staying up late talking about the intricacies of burning woody materials, we headed back to our home in Northern California. It was a great experience and we will definitely return next year. The good folks at Aprovecho Research Center and InStove provided the perfect environment for us to learn and network and we thank them heartily.

Stove history with Larry, Nordica, Dean and Damon
Stove history with Larry, Nordica, Dean and Damon
Thida and I with Fred, the founder of InStove
Thida and I with Fred, the founder of InStove
Larry and I are stumped!
Larry and I are stumped!
Dale with his  experimental "big-mouth stove"
Dale with his experimental "big-mouth stove"
"The Trough" - a primitive charcoal making device
"The Trough" - a primitive charcoal making device
 
   

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