Solar Lights for Burma

by Solar Roots

In February, my assistant, Thida Win, and I attended a conference on mini-grids in Nay Pyi Daw, the new capital of Myanmar (Burma). The conference was hosted by the World Bank Group and participants came from many different countries to contribute their unique perspective and experience. Prior to attending the conference, I knew what mini-grids were, though I had never worked on one. In fact they are quite rare and are more of an emerging technology, especially when supplied from a renewable energy source. In course of the conference I was to learn not just the technical challenges of mini-grids, but also the political and financial aspects,which are no less daunting.

A mini-grid is a type of electrical distribution system that serves remote communities, where the national grid is unlikely to arrive for some years to come. Typically, a mini-grid is used to supply power to an island, where the costs and technical difficulties make grid power unfeasible. But it can also be used to serve remote mountain communities, that perhaps have access to a hydropower source. In terms of scale, mini-grids are located between the national grid and the individual solar home system. A mini grid can supply of village of several hundred people and can be powered by a diesel generator or by renewable source such as solar or hydro.

The conference participants were a mixture of technical people, financial people and policy people - each with their own perspective. The government of Myanmar has a stated policy of electricity for all by 2030 and it is hoped that mini-grids can play a significant role in achieving this goal. During the first few days of the conference we heard from our colleagues from Africa about their successes and failures in rolling out these systems in their home countries. What at first sounds like an ideal solution - distributed renewable energy for remote areas, masks a plethora of complex problems encompassing technical, political and financial issues. A short list of the difficulties can be summarized in the following questions: Who pays for the installation of the mini-grid? Who owns the asset, once it is built? What will be the cost of the power to the consumer? What will happen to the mini-grid when the national grid eventually arrives? Who will pay for the training of service personnel to keep these systems running?

Clearly, the installation of mini-grids is beyond the remit of Solar Roots, but I was very happy to learn first-hand about the policy and progress of electrification in Myanmar. The new national electricity policy has a three-pronged approach that will be rolled out over the next 13 years. First, the national grid will be extended from its existing locations, mini-grids will be built in areas where the national grid is 10 miles or 10 years away and small solar home systems will cover people in extremely remote areas. The major challenges include: Who will pay for all this? Can the technical personnel be trained in time? Is Myanmar a lucrative enough market to attract foreign investment? Looking at the brake-neck development that has happened in certain areas in the last 3 years, one is tempted to conclude that the national grid will be extended to serve the needs of industry near the big cities, but the remote villages will languish with few and inferior electrical services. Solar Roots might be able to support the deployment of solar homes systems by assisting with training personnel, but that would have to fit with our mission to help the poorest and most disadvantaged citizens.

One highlight of the five-day conference was a trip to visit two existing mini-grids - one supplied by solar and one supplied by a diesel generator. The solar installation had been recently completed and served around 50 households. Featuring a meter that limited peak usage to100 watts and daily usage to 50 watt hours, this was a very modest system, that gave enough power for 2 lights, phone charging and a very small DVD player. The monthly cost was also modest - about $2 per month. In theory, this system was "grid-ready", meaning that it could be connected to the national grid when it arrives. The installation was done by a solar company and financed by the department of rural development. The second mini-grid had been in service for about 3 years and was powered by a diesel generator. Here the quality of the distribution lines was sadly lacking and downright dangerous in places. The voltage and frequency of the supply was way out of specification and service was limited to 3 hours per night. Cost to the consumer was higher and service was poorer. This system is typical of several private or community run systems that I have seen in Myanmar.

All-in-all, the conference was a great learning experience for us. Although Solar Roots can only play a limited role in the electrification of the entire country, I was delighted to participate in the exchange of information. It was also an opportunity to renew old friendships and make new ones in the small world that is the renewable energy sector in Myanmar.

I apologize that I am unable to include any photographs with this report as the Internet is too slow in Myanmar to upload them.

If you like the work we are doing in Myanmar, please consider making another donation. Your support is what helps us carry out our projects.

Many thanks,

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?
John Higgins with his diesel from plastic retort
John Higgins with his diesel from plastic retort

 

            It’s Summertime again and Thida Win 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 Jahangiri of International LifeLine Fund, who has more than 20 years experience in the NGO field, and Dale Andreatta 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 Higgins 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
Larry and I are stumped!
Larry and I are stumped!
"The Trough" - a primitive charcoal making device
"The Trough" - a primitive charcoal making device
Thida and I with Fred, the founder of InStove
Thida and I with Fred, the founder of InStove
Dale with his  experimental "big-mouth stove"
Dale with his experimental "big-mouth stove"
Ms Thida burns rice husks to make valuable ash
Ms Thida burns rice husks to make valuable ash

         Although very busy supervising the construction of our new house in Pyin Oo Lwin, I took a week off to give a training in the Shwe Nadi Monastery, near Kyaukbadaung in the Dry Zone of Burma. Everyone up in our hill town of Pyin Oo Lwin warned me not to go to Kyaukbadaung, as it would be too hot and dangerous for my health! Well, I survived by drinking 3 to 5 liters of water per day and limiting my working time to about 4 hours per day. Why so hot? Well, the Dry Zone is the equivalent of Death Valley in Burma. It very rarely rains there, but when it does, the water scours the land, badly eroding it. Needless to say, daytime temperatures were over 100 degrees F and at night, the mercury only dropped a couple of notches. However, I soldiered on!

         The head monk at Shwe Nadi is a very progressive leader, already recognized for his efforts in reforesting the surrounding area. I was impressed by his tree nursery, where he grows saplings, which he provides free to neighboring farmers. Just the kind of fellow that I like to partner with.

         The main innovation in this training was the use of new stainless steel molds that I commissioned from our neighborhood steel fabricator in Pyin Oo Lwin. I got two sets made up – one for a 5 inch stove and one for a 6 inch stove, for around $35 per set. The molds were not quite as successful as I had hoped, as we had difficulty extracting the bricks, without breakage. However, we learned quite a few lessons and I expect the stainless steel molds to be a standard part of the Solar Roots repertoire in the future. It is my plan to leave a set of these molds in the village after each training, as they are very robust and should be able to be used to make thousands of bricks in their lifetime.

         I also experimented with new mixtures for the bricks, as I was advised to add lime and cut down on the cement. The mixture that I have used in the past has been one part Portland cement, one part sand and one part rice husk ash and I have found this to be successful, given enough time to allow the brick to dry before removing it from the mold. However, at Shwe Nadi , I was a bit under the gun to get the bricks out and built into functioning stoves. Sad to say, the lime proved to be a step backwards – it produced weak bricks that just didn’t hold together. So, I’m going back to the tested and tried mixture.

         One of the encouraging outcomes of this training was meeting two young men that were passionate about improved cook stoves. I first noticed them in class when they asked very thoughtful questions. Later they worked with me making bricks and demonstrating a throw-together stove made from adobe bricks.

         So, despite the disappointments, I feel that I laid the foundation for future stove building in Shwe Nadi. The Dry Zone is as dependent on wood for cooking fuel as any other area in Burma. But the forests are long gone and fuel conservation is an utmost priority. Given good health and good luck, I will return to Shwe Nadi to work with the good folks there to help them to reduce their wood consumption and to bring back the forest.

         If you like our work and would like to support our efforts, please make a donation.

Thank you,

Bruce Gardiner

Project Director

Our local welder makes up the molds
Our local welder makes up the molds
Filling the molds with the cement/ash/lime mixture
Filling the molds with the cement/ash/lime mixture
A monk explains the stove to his students
A monk explains the stove to his students
A stove that built back in 2014
A stove that built back in 2014
Sunrise over Bagan - on our day off!
Sunrise over Bagan - on our day off!
Solar Roots Operation in Burma
I arrived back in Burma, (now often referred to as Myanmar), in January with the aim of advancing our vision for the Solar Roots Renewable Energy Training Center. It has long been a goal of mine to establish a center where I could employ local Burmese people to help me spread the good news of Renewable Energy.
Three years ago I was able to purchase a small piece of land in the village of Nya Yan Chaung, (“Catfish Stream”) which is on the edge of Pyin Oo Lwin, about 2 hours east of Mandalay. Foreigners cannot own land in Burma, so the land is held in the name of a close friend, who is a Burmese citizen. The main goal of my 2016 activities is to build a house on the land, which will initially serve as a Solar Roots headquarters and training workshop. At this juncture, let me state clearly that no Solar Roots funds have been or will be used in the purchase of the land or the building of the house – I am paying for this out of my own pocket.
In past years I have stayed at a local orphanage or in hotels and this lifestyle has become wearisome for me, as well as costly and inconvenient. At least when the house is finished, I will have a place to offer accommodation to visiting consultants, and somewhere to hold trainings and store my tools and materials.
The house building is progressing nicely, with the foundation almost completed and the steel I-beams soon to be installed. Although one of my goals for Solar Roots is to include Natural Building as one of our training options, for my own house I decided to go with modern industrial materials in the interests of fast construction and low future maintenance. One of the key features of the house design is the passive solar heat gain which will be obtained through five large windows in the SE wall. (Pyin Oo Lwin is located at 3,500ft and winters here are quite chilly). The sunlight will come through the windows, be absorbed by dark colored tiles on the concrete floor and re-radiate this heat later in the day, as the outside air temperature decreases.  Other solar features will include a solar hot water heater, similar to the one we installed at St Mathews Orphanage Center in 2013 and a solar electric battery back-up system. Although we are happy to have a new power supply from the local utility, outages and frighteningly low voltages are still commonplace in the new Burma!
But this is only the beginning – we have a larger vision. I hope before I leave in July to secure an adjacent piece of land which will be for the actual Solar Roots Training Center, itself. Unfortunately, land prices have sky-rocketed since I bought my land. The half acre which cost $17,000 in 2013, now costs over $50,000. However, I am determined to have the Center within easy walking distance of my house and we have made friends with neighbors who are willing to sell us some land. All that remains is to arrive at a price that the sellers feel is fair and that I can afford. As before, no Solar Roots funds will be used in the purchase of this land – I will handle that myself.
In building the house, I have been ably assisted by Ms Thida Win, our part-time community liason person. She is great at breaking the ice with neighbors and officials. As her special interests lie in organic agriculture and composting, she can’t wait to get started as soon as the new land is secured.
I hope that you like our vision for the future of Solar Roots in Burma and that you will remain an active supporter in our quest to bring Renewable Energy and green consciousness to this wonderful country.
 

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Organization Information

Solar Roots

Location: Berkeley, CA - USA
Website: http:/​/​www.solarroots.org
Project Leader:
Bruce Gardiner
Berkeley, CA United States

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