1 Introduction previous
1.1 How did it all start: The Cambulo project

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The firefly system originates from my work as a VSO volunteer at PRRM - Ifugao branch in the Philippines (PRRM is an NGO with branches in 7 provinces and a central office in Manila). My original job was to introducing an agricultural system that reduces erosion and increases soil fertility. For this work, I travelled around Ifugao province and came to know quite a few people.

Ifugao is one of the poorest provinces of the Philippines. Apart from tourism, wood carving and some green beans, it hardly produces anything that is sold outside of the province. It does import many things from outside and the money comes from government jobs, government projects, jobs and projects provided by development projects but above all: From Ifugao people working temporarily in the lowlands and abroad.

As in the whole of the Philippines, level of education in Ifugao is quite high. People have been in touch with the `blessings of modern life' and would like to get their share of these. One of these things is electric light. There are 3 major roads within the province and along these roads, there are power lines of the national grid. It is unlikely that the grid will be expanded significantly and will reach even a small portion of the many settlements and dispersed houses further away from these roads within the next 10 or 20 years. Solar energy could be an option but is too expensive for the great majority of people living in the countryside.

Micro Hydro seemed more feasible, especially in the higher areas where people cultivate native rice varieties on small terraces that are irrigated by quite small irrigation canals. In principle, those canals could be used as a source for a micro hydro plant, if agreements could be made with farmers using these canals. At least Ifugao people knew how to plan, build and maintain such canals. As a hobby, an Ifugao frend working at the Department of Trade and Industry and I wrote a report on the possibilities for Micro Hydro in Ifugao.

We suggested to PRRM to start working on Micro Hydro and it was decided that this would be a priority in my work. At that time, I was due to leave in 10 months so things had to be done fast. One of the first and, in hindsight, best decisions was to choose for a 12 V, battery charging system instead of trying to develop a 220 V system. A colleague suggested to choose the village she came from as a pilot village: Cambulo. She had set up a coop store there that ran quite well and some of its members were interested in trying out this new technology.

Designing and building the first prototype charger turned out to be the easy bit. After a few days of calculating and 7 days of building, it produced electricity for the first time. It was decided to install this charger plus one home system in the coop store building as a demonstration set, at no costs for the people exept for help in installing it: A demonstration phase.

The system worked quite well, in spite of some technical problems that every time were solved just before the battery would run empty and the lamp would fade out. Different technical options were discussed with coop store members but in the end, luckily they favoured the system that was simplest both from a technical and an organisational point of view: With each family having its own battery. After some 4 months, two batches of 13 members in total ordered materials for their own home system on installment basis.

These 13 systems were installed and a brief building manual was produced just before I left, within 10 months of the time PRRM decided to make Micro Hydro a priority. Most of the time was not spent on technical matters but on working out the economics, trying to find more suitable parts and materials, cheaper suppliers, buying parts, arranging transport, applying for grants and financial reporting afterwards and, last but not least: Contacts with potential users.

After I had left, the project ran into difficulties. This one charger (a prototype) functioned for another half a year and then got seriously damaged, probably because operators connected it wrong in an attempt to get it running again. I knew there were two design errors in it: Construction of blades in the runner was too weak and the seal around the shaft leaked when the charger was running free (so without charging a battery). I had never found time to deal with those problems properly and I expected they would not cause any serious problems after it had ran for so many hours already.

But they did. On my last visit to Cambulo, I had found out that one blade had broken out. The runner still functioned but apparently it made the seal to leak more badly because it made water to splash around in a different way. Over the time, 2 more blades broke out, making the seal leak more and more badly. Probably the brushes became wet and due to the increased resistance, the field current was reduced. This reduced charger output power and made it run faster, which in turn made the seal to leak even more. Probably this is the problem the operators tried to solve by connecting the alternator in a different way, and then blew up some diodes.

Fig. 1.1: A real firefly. It's an impressive sight to see thousands of them twinkling in a tree on a moonless night.

PRRM had requested for another VSO volunteer but he (mr. Simon Taylor) arrived in the Philippines only 10 months after I had left. The charger was repaired but later it revealed that a number of batteries had become useless due to being left in discharged condition too long.

Simon arranged that another charger I had built back in Holland would be sent to the Philippines. This charger worked fine when it was demonstrated near PRRM's office but there were many problems when it was installed in another village. The penstock pipe was lost once during a flood, both the switchboard indicator and the voltage regulator got destroyed and eventually the switchboard itself was stolen.

In september 1994, Simon organised a workshop on building chargers, using the design presented in the previous version of this book. In cooperation with future users, two chargers were built and the Cambulo charger got a major overhaul. It also produced interesting contacts. The workshop was held at an agricultural school. People from the school became interested and started to build a charger of their own. People from two ANEC's (Affiliated Non-conventional Energy Centers, programmes resorting under the Dept. Of Energy and affiliated to Philippine universities) participated in the workshop and later started to build and test a number prototypes themselves. In February 1995, they organised a study tour for people from 17 other ANEC's on using Micro Hydro for battery charging. Participants were impressed and quite a few felt that the firefly could be introduced in their area. The general idea was to start with the firefly and, if the need arises, move towards more sophisticated, more powerful systems later. They planned a workshop on building runners and nozzles for last July. In cooperation with these ANECS, Simon organised another workshop in which two more chargers were built.

But building chargers is not the hardest thing. Getting a user group together, install the charger and sort out all the technical and organisational trouble that crops up is much more work. Probably the 4 chargers Simon has built, are in different phases of being installed now. They were built on request of groups who were interested in using them, so no user groups have to be set up right from nothing.

So things definitely developed further after I had left, but not as fast as I had hoped. Maybe this is due to the problems Simon experienced in his Micro Hydro work:

Latest news is that PRRM wants to start with Micro Hydro in some of its other branches. Meanwhile, the Cambulo user group never gave up, it even expanded after I had left. Their charger, a hastily built prototype, is running for more than 3 years now and it looks like that machine still is the most succesful one until now.


1.2 Plan for introducing the firefly concept in other areas

The Cambulo project has shown some of the perspectives of the firefly concept. Some things went wrong but at least technically, the teething trouble should be over by now. This makes that the concept definitely is worth consideration in other, similar areas.

For introducing the firefly in other areas, the Cambulo project also provides valuable experiences. Thinking a bit further, this leads to the following model for introducing the firefly in a new area based on 3 phases:

However, the slow progress in the Cambulo project after I had left, sheds doubts on whether this model is appropriate and useable, and even on whether the firefly technology itself is worthwhile. When I left end of 1992, the Cambulo project was in the introduction phase. As far as I know, there has been no further expansion without involvement of PRRM since then, meaning that it has not reached the expansion phase yet. Why this hasn't happened, is a major question, possible answers are:

Before recommending to introduce the firefly in many new areas, this issue should be sorted out better. Hopefully this will be done by the time a next version of this book comes out.

The book could be seen as a manual on setting up a firefly demonstration phase. There are several reasons for having such a demonstration project and not to try to introduce it right away:

If the demo phase turns out to be succesful and generates enthousiasm with potential users, local government units and workshops interested in producing components etc., there could be a follow-up introduction phase. I think the initiative for this definitely should come from the area and outsiders could only help making it happen. It is likely that the technical design needs to be modified to suit the wishes of potential users and the constraints of local production. The way user groups are organised and the introduction project itself is managed, should link in well with local practices on this field. Maybe a development agency or a local government could take the lead. If a private workshop would be interested, it would be even better as this comes close to the expansion phase already.

This book can not present a plan for an introduction phase. Instead of a pre-cooked plan, the demonstration project that could be set up with the help of this book, should open options: Different technical and economical possibilities and, through discussions generated by it, different ways to organise user groups and ways to set up and manage such an introduction project. It is up to the people concerned to choose what they would like, and whether they like this enough to invest their time and money in it.

If in a specific area, the firefly concept seems to be an attractive option, someone has to take the initiative to get a demonstration project off the ground. It is unlikely that this someone could be somebody from the local community since one has to be convinced of the advantages of the firefly system before investing time and money in it. But it is important that he or she knows the area pretty well. Therefor development workers and their partners who already live in such an area, seem to be the best bet. Of course anybody living in a suitable area and with the same skills and ambitions, is encouraged to take such an initiative and use this book. But for writing a book, one has to know the target audience a little and therefor it is easier to write for development workers.

For setting up a demonstration phase, development workers with a electrical or mechanical engineering background would be the most suitable persons. However, the chance of finding such people in the faraway, rural areas where the firefly system could serve a need, is remote. Therefor it was decided to write this book for development workers without such a technical background. They could be sent out as extension worker, agronomist, soil and water specialist, medical doctor, community organiser, women and development specialist, credit specialist or whatever. What such people, roughly speaking, will have in common is:

The previous version of this book has been tried out by people with similar capabilities as the target group. Two land and water management graduates from Wageningen Agricultural University have built a charge indicator that would have worked if they hadn't made a mistake due to a misleading picture I had given with the manual. Eight final year high school students (the `Gouda group') have built a charger as a physics project. Their charger was not exactly `export quality' but it worked. They realized what was wrong with it and would have been able to improve it if they had had more time, see fig. 2.1. Of course comments and experiences from these people have been used to improve the book.

Fig. 1.2: High school students testing the charger they have built. The man listening so attentively is their physics teacher. With thanks to the Gouda firebrigade for lending them a pump.

So this book should enable people from the target reader group to decide whether the firefly system could be an attractive option for area they live in, and if yes: To set up a firefly demonstration project. The book gives no blueprint for such a demo project, it focusses on a technical design that should be useable under a wide range of conditions and that is relatively easy to build. Readers are encouraged to use their insight in the local situation and plan a demo project the way they think is most suitable.

This way, the initiative for a demo project definitely comes from abroad, from me as the author of this book, who knows very little about the area, and from a development worker who has been there not so long and probably will leave after some years. This means that there is a chance that the firefly will be a `white elephant' in such an area. I think this is acceptable because:

For readers who feel the firefly system could be a valuable technology in their area, but see the technical work as a major obstacle, buying components or complete systems might be an interesting option. This means the job of starting to produce systems locally is postponed until after one or more firefly systems have proven their value in practice. By then, it is more likely that local workshops, technical schools and government agencies will be more interested in helping to set up local production and with their help, the job could be a lot easier.

On short term, complete systems or major components (e.g. runner, nozzle, charge indicators) can be ordered with me. Please contact me to ask for prices and delivery terms. As soon as good quality systems are produced in a third world country, probably such a workshop would be interested in selling some systems to other countries as well.

Then as a last remark: The firefly system itself should not be seen as the final solution. A major advantage of the firefly system is that it can be introduced relatively easy (see par. 2.2). In certain areas, it might serve for 10 or 20 years, maybe only 5, and then be replaced by 220 V Micro Hydro schemes as the demand for electricity rises. Then it would serve as a stepping stone towards more powerful Micro Hydro schemes, just as it was initially intended only for demonstrating that one can generate electricity from streaming water in the Cambulo project. In other areas where the population lives too dispersed and people are too poor to afford power lines, the firefly system could be the best solution for a long time.


1.3 Set-up of the book

The contradiction that must have struck every reader already is that this book is too thick: If the firefly is a simple technology that could be built locally in many areas, why on earth was it necessary to write such a voluminous book on it. People from the target reader group might feel the firefly technology must be too complicated for them to handle, and then this book would have defeated its object. It has become so long because:

The fact that it is written for people without a technical background, has lead to the following:

Then about the situation in which this book is likely to be used. In the western world, it would be a problem that this book is so thick because it just requires too much time to read it and `time is money'. Meanwhile in western countries, technical advice is easy to get and if there are parts that seem difficult to make, one could have them made by a specialised workshop, if the money is available. In a faraway, rural area in a third world country, the situation is completely different:

To people who are interested in the firefly system, think it could be a good thing in their area, but feel unable to start a demo project because it all seems so technical and complicated, please consider the following:

Because this book has been geared so much towards readers without technical background, it must have become almost an insult to experienced mechanical and electrical engineers. Many things are just logic and there is no need to tell them. For quite a number of technical details, there are alternative designs that are technically superior, but a bit more complicated to build or use, or not applicable in all kinds of situations. The care with which things should be build, checked and tested according to this book, stands in no relation to how simple this firefly system will be in the eyes of a technician. And above all, the technical data they do need in order to build one, are dispersed between all this. So some special advice for my respected fellow technicians:

What could be interesting for technically trained people is not to build the `technically safe' design described in this book, but to adapt it further to local conditions. Maybe it should have slightly different characteristics, probably there are simpler solutions for certain details and it should become a simple, rugged, rough and ready design that is easier and cheaper to build. When pushing it to the limits of costs reduction, ease of construction and use of cheap locally available components and materials, technical problems will crop up that require experience and careful thinking. I am very much interested in the results. Just for fun, I would like to build a charger once without using any measuring device (like a rule, vernier calliper, tester etc.) and see whether I can get it running. It could be interesting to see how badly a charger could be built before it actually becomes unfit to work. But people without technical background would better stick to the technically safe design of this book...

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