Solar Lights for Burma

by Solar Roots
Vetted
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.

2015 was a very busy year for me personally and I was unable to visit Burma to continue our solar training program. However, now things are in taken care of at home, I am ready to embark on another year's activity of promoting solar technology and training people in its use.  Here are a couple of the projects I plan to follow up on in 2016.

1) Solar Food Dyers: As in many tropical countries, Burma has vast harvests of fruits and vegetables, often much more than can be consumed at harvest time. But, on the other hand, there are also other times of the year when basic food supplies are in short supply. To address this issue, Solar Roots will conduct several trainings in building solar food dryers. This is proven technology, but it is not widespread. To be sure, many farmers in the developing world lay their products as tea, coffee and rice in the sun, in order to dry them, but this is not the best way to do the job. Exposing fruits and vegetables to direct sunlight actually damages the produce by destroying some of the vitamins and nutrients, to say nothing of changing the color! The best way is to heat air with a solar collector, then pass the hot air through the produce, laid out on shelves. That way, one can control the temperature and the produce is never exposed to direct sunlight. Not only will preserving food in this way add to the food supply in lean times, it will also create a high value marketable product for sale domestically, or even for export. There is keen interest in Burma in learning how to do this.

2) Solar Training in the Golden Triangle:  In 2014 I had the great fortune to meet a remarkable man from the Golden Triangle - Pastor Noel. We met a solar training that I was giving in Pyin Oo Lwin and he invited me to give a similar training in his village near Tachilek. The Golden Triangle is a remote area of eastern Burma, close to the border with Laos and Thailand. It is an isolated and poor area that gets its name from the opium cultivation that farmers resort to in order to make ends meet. Although he lives remotely, Noel is the head of the Association of People with Disabilities in Burma. He is working hard to improve the lives of his fellow villagers and he sees the introduction of solar electricity as being key to this goal. Normally an in-depth solar training like this takes about 2 weeks and I will have to carry in all the necessary equipment, as I doubt whether the local market will be well stocked. But I may be pleasantly surprised, as the solar market in Burma has improved greatly in the last 3 years. The choice and quality of solar products go up very year and some brands of solar panels actually offer 10-year warranties!

We are looking forward to a very productive year in 2016, so please follow us by checking in to website at www.solarroots.org for regular updates. Thank you for your onging support of Solar Roots.

Chris, in humorous style, points the way!
Chris, in humorous style, points the way!

 

            Since I have been unable for personal reasons, to visit Burma in 2015 and continue our training program, I felt that we shouldn’t hold the series of fundraisers that we usually put on in November. Instead, the Solar Roots Board of Directors and I decided to hold a Celebration of Burma event as a thank-you for all our supporters and donors.

            Well, it was quite an organizational challenge, taking at least 3 Board meetings to determine goals assign, tasks and assemble the equipment needed for such an event. But the Solar Roots Board was equal to the challenge. Everyone pitched in and we were able to pull off the event off in grand style. We were extremely fortunate to have the use of a beautiful back garden and performance space in the Berkeley hills and our sincere gratitude is owed to Kirsten for providing that for us.

            The event ran from 2 to 5 pm on Sunday September 6th and it was a glorious sunny day in the San Francisco Bay Area. Just as well, as one of our key demonstrations was of our solar powered irrigation pump! Our Board member, Chris set this up and showed that even a small pump with 150W of solar panels could move more than 4 gallons per minute, in full sun. In another demonstration, Board member Sanya displayed the power of our stoves by quickly boiling water, which was then used to serve Burmese tea. Our part-time employee, Ms Thida Win, visiting the US at this time, was on hand to show guests how the Burmese use Tha Na Ka, which is a paste made from a tree branch, to beautify their faces and protect their skin from the sun. We were fortunate to secure the services of Ms Suu Wei, who regaled the audience with haunting vocal melodies and accompanied herself on the Burmese harp. A real high point of the proceedings was the serving of several dishes of Burmese food provided by Rangoon Superstars Restaurant in Berkeley. Just before the concert, I gave a short update on the current political situation in the new Burma, which is not always reported in its entirety, in the popular Western press. Following that, I summarized where Solar Roots fits into that picture and I described our goals for the next 5 years, which includes the establishment of a Renewable Energy Training Center and the hiring of local Burmese employees, who will be able to give trainings in remote areas and eventually run the organization.

            All in all, it was a glorious day, much enjoyed by all those who attended and I would like to extend my heart-felt thanks to Kirsten and all the Solar Roots Board members, who worked so hard to make it a success.

The solar pump demonstration
The solar pump demonstration
Thida applies Tha Na Ka to Regina, SR President
Thida applies Tha Na Ka to Regina, SR President
Ms Suu Wei delights with the Burmese harp
Ms Suu Wei delights with the Burmese harp
Pam, SR CFO, serves delicious Burmese food
Pam, SR CFO, serves delicious Burmese food
SR guests enjoy Burmese music and food together
SR guests enjoy Burmese music and food together
The old diesel powered pump that solar replaced
The old diesel powered pump that solar replaced

Myanmar is a country where a high percentage of the population depends on agriculture for their income. In the South, rainfall is abundant during the monsoon season and rice is easily grown. However, in the central region, and especially the ominously-named "Dry Zone", water is a much scarcer commodity. The monsoon rains are much less prevalent here and there is a high demand for water pumps for irrigation. Usually the pumping set-up is a large stationary diesel engine with a belt drive to a crude water pump. Although noisy and smoky, these units are still expensive for the average farmer and the engine usually needs constant maintenance.

Seya Paul (*), a good friend of Solar Roots and a tireless activist for justice and sustainable living, operates a demonstration organic farm in Pyin Oo Lwin. He has often asked me about the possibility of irrigating his farm using solar power, but I wasn't able to find 12V DC pumps on the local market. Of course, I could import solar pumps from Europe at great cost, but this is not a viable solution for the Myanmar farmers. My general philosophy is to buy what is available locally, even if the quality is not high, because at least spare parts are available and in time I hope to find Myanmar importers who are willing to import higher quality solar pumps from China. After some searching, I found two 12V DC pumps and tested them for efficiency and durability. Whereas the slick and costly European solar pumps can run directly from the solar panels, theses cheap Chinese pumps ran very, very hot when connected that way. The solar power needed to be "conditioned", that is, smoothed out, to be closer to the operating range of the pump. The answer was to put a battery into the system, that way, the PV panel is always charging the battery and the battery is always supplying regulated power to the pump.

Previously, Seya Paul had been using an old diesel engine and belt-driven pump that created a foul and noxious smoke storm whenever it was started up. His water source is a hand-dug well about 20ft deep and his land rises an additional 20ft at the high end. This was quite a challenge for our little solar pump. However, by putting the solar panel on a tracker, (a frame on a pole), we are able to follow the sun in it's path across the sky and get the maximum output from the panel. Seya Paul reckons that the solar pump will be able to handle most of his irrigation for most of the year - this is a huge leap forward. Now, the next step is to locate a manufacturer of good quality solar pumps in China and to find a Myanmar business to import them - wish me luck!

 

 

(*) Seya Paul is an invented name to protect the identity of this recipeint.

Smoke from the old diesel engine!
Smoke from the old diesel engine!
Seya Paul digs solar panel support post
Seya Paul digs solar panel support post
Testing the 12V pumps to find the strongest one
Testing the 12V pumps to find the strongest one
The solar pump in action - and no smoke!
The solar pump in action - and no smoke!
Seya Paul checks the panel orientation
Seya Paul checks the panel orientation
 

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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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