Mission to CLSU-ANEC and BSU-ANEC

From April to June 1996, I have made a consultancy trip to CLSU-ANEC and BSU-ANEC. Objective of this mission was "strengthening the Philippine Affiliated Non-Conventional Energy Centers in the Firefly Micro Hydro System and it was funded by DGIS/DST/ML (Dutch ODA dept.). Since then, I have had little contact with these organisations and what I know about their work, might be outdated.

ANEC's are organisations reporting to DOE-NCED (Dept. Of Energy - Non Conventional Energy Division) and affiliated to universities in provincial towns. In 1995 there were 19 ANEC's in the Philippines. Their budget comes from DOE-NCED, but like with many other government budgets, the money often comes in months too late. The universities contribute office space and workshop facilities on their campus, and senior staff members who remain employed by the university and work only part time for the ANEC.

During the mission, I worked mostly at the office of CLSU-ANEC in Munoz. I gathered information on the firefly chargers that were built and installed. I wrote reports on technical aspects and on the way CLSU-ANEC and BSU-ANEC were trying to introduce the firefly. I participated in a training for farmers on building firefly chargers at BSU-ANEC.

Farmers build their own chargers

This workshop was an inspiring event: Under guidance of junior ANEC staff, some 15 people built 3 chargers and tested them. Most of the participants were farmers with little technical background, but enthousiastic about installing a charger in their own village, provided that they could learn how to install and maintain it. Clearly ANEC staff were experienced in giving such trainings: Junior staff were enthousiastic and self-confident, all necessary materials and equipment were there, housing and food for participants were arranged. The final test showed splashing proof that those 3 groups did produce a working charger. And finally, there was a party to end the course.

Joel Cubit cutting a side disk (photo: Simon Taylor, taken during an earlier workshop)

A theory lesson, given by mr. Simon Taylor of PRRM

A participant hammering a blade to shape

Mr. Molinas at the test bench: A grinder motor driving the charger via V-belts.

Conrad ... brass-solders a runner. Complicated jobs were done by junior ANEC staff. He wears dark sunglasses and there is a can around the runner to reduce heat losses. This makes good quality soldering much easier.

Senior staff of CLSU- and BSU-ANEC overlooking the final test. From left to right: mrs. Betty Malamug, Engr. John Malamug, mr. Edgar Molinas and Engr. Angelito Angeles. Mr. Angeles and mr. Malamug are director of resp. CLSU-ANEC and BSU-ANEC, while mrs. Malamug and mr. Molinas are assistant director. There are close ties between these ANEC's as mr. and mrs. Malamug are married and mr. Malamug visited CLSU-ANEC often.

The site for the final test: More than enough head, plenty of flow, a beautiful area, but not a typical site for a charger: It would be wiped out the first time there is some heavy rains.

Participants and staff after succesful test of the 3 chargers made during the course.


The CLSU- / BSU-ANEC approach was quite different from that of PRRM:

  1. Focus on building chargers. There was little attention on what more is needed to make use of the charger: Batteries, suitable lamps, cable, switches, charge indicator.
  2. No community organizing. This is logic considering their technical background and they were willing to cooperate with an organisation with a strong community organising background: PRRM. A more serious point is that they were willing to give away chargers for free, as 'social projects' paid for by the government or by foreign development funding. To me as a development worker, this sounds wrong because it creates dependency: What if the the charger breaks down or if those people have another problem they want to be solved? Can they come to CLSU- / BSU-ANEC again who will solve all their problems? A better approach is to train them to solve their own problems, like the farmers who learned to build chargers. Then if the investment costs are realy too high, loans could be given or goods could be sold at wholesale prices.
  3. There was a tendency to go for 'showcase projects': Something concrete and spectacular that can can be officially opened by the governor with pictures in the newspapers. When it breaks down after a few days, weeks or months: Who cares?
  4. There was no commitment to introducing the firefly. It was considered useful as a step towards 'KiloWatt level' Micro Hydro, so more powerful turbines driving 110 V AC generators and they saw this as their 'Flagship technology'

This may sound like severe criticism, but one has to consider the position those ANEC's were in:

  • Funding problems: They have to show some beautiful results fast in order to compete for funding.
  • Political system: Politicians need showcase projects in order to get re-elected and they are willing to fund such projects. And you'd better stay frends with them.
  • CLSU- and BSU-ANEC also have to work on introducing other renewableare energy technologies like biogas, solar energy and hydraulic rams

In terms of chargers produced, this approach was quite succesful: Up to June 1996, some 18 chargers were produced. Some of these were made during a joint workshop with PRRM and PRRM will count these as their projects. CLSU-ANEC had 2 chargers installed but neither of them was operational: One was at the Palasapas site where the creek had dried up and the other one was connected to the discharge pipe of an irrigation pump that was not used at the time. BSU-ANEC had 10 chargers installed , with 3 of them not functioning at that time: One because there was nobody to operate it, one because of lack of water since using it for irrigation had priority, and one because it was meant for demonstrating it only once. The 3 chargers produced during the workshop, were planned to be installed soon in BSU-ANEC. BSU-ANEC was more succesful in introducing the firefly because:

  • BSU-ANEC's working area (the Cordillera mountain range) is more suitable for Micro Hydro than CLSU-ANEC's working area (with mainly lowland plains).
  • BSU-ANEC employs staff members from each Cordillera province. They were quite enthousiastic about the firefly and some staff members have installed firefly chargers in the village they come from.

There were no records about numbers of users, financial results, organisational matters etc.

Demonstration of a firefly charger in Kabugao: This is within BSU-ANEC's working area, but 2 days travelling away from Baguio, where BSU-ANEC is based.

Drawing copied from a leaflet spread by XU-ANEC (Xavier University, Cagayan de Oro). They bought 2 chargers from CLSU / BSU-ANEC for demonstrations in their own area and lent out one to DOE-MFO (Dept. Of Energy - Mindanao Field Office). They plan to manufacture more chargers.

Mr. Angelito V. Angeles of CLSU-ANEC and I have had some heated arguments about the technical quality of their chargers.
  • Pipe losses: Mr. Angeles insisted that a 2" PE pipe was large enough for the charger. To compensate for high pipe losses, he recommended that sites with 15 m head or more should be used. A higher head usually means a longer pipe, pipe losses consuming far more power than the turbine itself and an electrical power output that is too low to charge large batteries within a reasonable time.
    With a 2.5" or 3" pipe, many more sites with a head of 5 m or above can be used. Also high head sites tend to be further away from communities: Nobody will try to build a house or cultivate crops at the steepest valley sides.
  • Switchboard problems: They sticked to using mechanical regulators and connecting them the same way as in a car. They did not readjust charging voltage to 14.7 V, so it would take excessively long to get batteries fully charged. For some installations, they did not connect some of the wires to the regulator and as far as I know, this must have disabled the regulator in such a way that it will continue to charge irrespective of battery voltage. Probably they never noticed because at low power output, it takes very long before a battery is fully charged and even then, voltage won't rise above 16 V. Also they fitted standard 0 - 30 V voltage indicators and 0 - 20 A (or 0 - 30 A) current indicators. With these, it is impossible to tell accurately whether a battery is charged well enough to be disconnected or not. Mr. Angeles recommended to use a specific gravity meter instead. I don't like that because it means opening up the battery, with the risk of dirt coming in and sulphuric acid spilled around. Also such meters break quite easily.
  • Deep discharge of batteries: Mr. Angeles did not recommend to install charge indicators. This was not just because they only dealt with the charger and left it to users to wire up their house. Mr. Angeles told me it was the "Philippine way" to use a battery until it was flat empty and then have it recharged when it is convenient to do so. This comes down to severe maltreatment of expensive batteries but he argued that even with this, battery life span was acceptable. Probably he was right on that because users won't notice when capacity of their battery drops below 80 % of its rated capacity and technically, it is considered worn out. Apparently it does take 2 - 3 years before a battery wears out so much that it becomes useless.
  • The charger itself: Chargers were built rather hastily. With their equipment and technical skills, they could have done better if they cared. For instance the gap between runner and nozzle often was very wide so that part of the flow would bypass the runner. Also the slots in side disks where the blades will fit in, were cut with a larger radius than designed. This makes blades much less strong but there were no records about blades breaking out, probably because their net head at the charger was always quite low due to high pipe losses.

One of the chargers: There was a gap of a few mm between runner and nozze and quite some water leaks away there.

CLSU-ANEC and BSU-ANEC started to build chargers before my building manual was available. They kept on using the same kind of frame as the original Cambulo prototype: With a horizontal shaft and the pipe at an angle of 45 °.

Towards the end of my stay, CLSU-ANEC people got involved in doing 'social projects' funded by the Casecnan project, a large, controversial hydropower project. People who were to be displaced due to the construction of this canal, could get hand tractors for free. CLSU-ANEC wanted to install Kilowatt level micro hydro generators there, but could not guarantee that those systems could be built fast enough so diesel generators were chosen, with little chance that free diesel would come in once the project was finished and those people forgotten. But if there is no money and the ANEC is about to fall apart, such projects do offer a chance to survive.

"Kilowat level"

When we discussed the project proposal for the mission, mr. Angeles argued that the firefly was "proven technology" and that it would be introduced fast all over the Philippines through the ANEC network. By then, he was much more interested in Micro Hydro systems generating 110 V AC with a capacity of 1 kW or above. CLSU-ANEC and BSU-ANEC had already installed a prototype system in Palasapas, a small village near CLSU-ANEC. For the turbine, he used a scaled-up version of the Firefly turbine. As generator, he used the synchronous generator from a gasoline driven generator set. The only problem was to find a suitable Electronic Load Controller (ELC) and he asked for my help on that. My frend Siem Broersen thought that designing a simple ELC was feasible and he worked out a prototype circuit design. After some changes, testing and more changes, we got a functioning ELC that was delivered to CLSU-ANEC a few months before the mission.

During the mission, I visited the Palasapas prototype system, I demonstrated the ELC with the generator driven by a gasoline engine and we discussed technical details of such systems. There was some technical trouble with the Palasapas system: A bearing had worn out because of water entering it along the shaft. The turbine had come loose from its foundation, probably because there were no expansion joints in penstock pipe. And again, too small a diameter pipe was used so pipe losses must have been way too high. But there were more serious problems:

  • The site was unsuitable. Even several weeks after the start of rainy season, the creek carried way too little flow to power this turbine and probably the turbine could run only just after heavy rains. Having their village connected to the national grid (only 1.3 km away) would have been a much better way to electrify this village.
  • Mr Angeles and his staff thought that all they needed was an ELC to keep generator voltage in check. They did not believe that user appliances could be destroyed just as well if frequency is way off nominal. In my eyes, they underestimated the electrical side of a 110 V AC system.

Mr. Angeles was worried about getting enough ELC's for his kW level projects after I would have returned to the Netherlands. So he urged me to make more ELC's of the prototype design before the end of the mission. This was not covered by the Terms of Reference of the mission's time and there was no more time to build them myself. Luckily, mr. Elmer ..... a neighbour of a frend, was willing to buy components, make PCB's and build them. When we tested them together, we found only a few tiny errors. By the time I left, 4 ELC's were ready, the last one only needed some new parts to be fitted. I left them with my frend, but they were never collected and paid for. In July 1999, mr. Angeles was interested in the newer and better tested ELC design. He mailed me: "I am interested to field test one in actual conditions including near mis-use, and mis-use to know how durable the design is". I did not go for that, I wanted someone to test out how it could be kept working, not someone to proof how easy it is to destroy it.

All in all, mr. Angeles' kW level plans did have an impact: It made me develop an ELC design that was eventually used by other people, see Humming bird ELC / IGC

The Palasapas turbine and power house.

mr. Elmer ... testing one of his ELC's.

The commercial approach: Top Ace motor works

My frend Huub Luyk knew Top Ace motor works, a large metal workshop whose manager, mr. Benito Tiong, was interested in Micro Hydro. Based on the firefly manual, mr. Tiong made a price quotation and came up with a very reasonable price: ca. US$ 150 for the charger without switchboard. I met mr. Tiong a couple of times and visited his workshop. Clearly, mr. Tiong was determined to, and capable of, producing good quality chargers. He suggested ways to produce the charger cheaper. In the Philippines, this is not as logic as it seems, as many business people think from the marketing side and are primarily interested in finding new ways to sell their products at a higher price.

Now there was a problem on the demand side: How could potential customers get in touch with Top Ace and order a charger so that Top Ace could start producing a small series. Top Ace would not do "turn-key firefly projects" so other parties were needed to advise potential users, help selecting a site, design civil works, wire up houses, sell batteries at a reasonable price etc. This is where ideas about good development projects come into play. I would have loved Top Ace to produce chargers and make a profit on it. Also DGIS/DST/ML (the Dutch ODA dept. that funded my mission) would like a private company to be involved and sell commodities at realistic prices. I think that mr. John Malamug, the manager of BSU-ANEC, was in favour of such contacts with Top Ace. BSU-ANEC received more requests for demonstration chargers than they could handle themselves and likely, he will have referred such people to Top Ace. But I doubt whether it fitted in mr. Angeles way of working: He wanted "social projects", so giving away chargers for free. He thought the chargers they built themselves, were good enough so no need to improve quality. The firefly building workshops were a showcase success for them so I don't think that he would like to put an end to it Also he was used to decide himself who could be beneficiaries of his M.H. projects, and not just sell products to customers who were willing to pay for it. Also for PRRM it would have been a big step to allow a private company to earn a profit from their Micro Hydro projects.

mr. Tiong (left) looking at my jigs and jigsaw machine for cutting side disks in series. The other people are, from left to right: mr. Edgar Molinas, and Jackson ..., both of BSU-ANEC, and mr. Tiong's assistant

I have not been in touch with Top Ace motor works since 1996 and I haven't heared about any chargers being built by them.

A Philippine-wide firefly introduction project

Besides my work for the ANEC's, I have tried to establish contacts with other organisations in the Philippines that could play a role in a future, Philippine-wide firefly introduction project. At that moment, it looked like there were possibilities for substantial funding from DGIS/DST/ML for such a project. But it never came off the ground:

  • I did not find an organisation (or a group of organisations) that were interested and capable of planning such a project, applying for funding and then implementing it.
  • Dutch development aid funding was restructured in such a way that decisions about funding would be made at Dutch embassies instead of in The Hague. So getting a project off the ground was primarily a matter between a Philippine organisation and the Dutch Embassy. As a Dutch technical consultant, I could do little to stimulate that process.

Is the firefly too cheap?

When I wrote the manual, I hoped that after some initial technology development and introduction projects, the firefly technology would spread by itself. This has not happened: On the whole, the firefly plays a negligible role in providing energy services to isolated, rural areas in the Philippines. Meanwhile, solar energy has been introduced succesfully in a number of developing countries and I guess the same has happened in the Philippines. An infrastructure for supply, installation, maintenance and repair has developed and prices have come down. A typical Solar Home System (SHS) consists of a solar panel, Battery Control Unit, a battery and a few fluorescent lamps. Both the firefly and a SHS can power about the same types of appliances. The firefly is more flexible in terms of energy usage as one could just have the battery recharged more often if one would like to consume more energy. A disadvantage of the firefly is that it requires more care (for checking battery state of charge) and more work (for bringing the battery to be recharged and collecting it later).

If one looks at costs, the firefly is much cheaper: Back in 1992, investment costs per house for the firefly were about 1/10 of those for a SHS. Investment costs for a SHS have come down since then and by now, the firefly will be about 1/5 of a SHS. Considering this price difference, one would expect that the firefly would outcompete the SHS in those areas where suitable sites are abundant and where people are so poor that spending time is favourable above spending more money. There must be quite a few such areas in the Philippines but nowhere the firefly has realy taken off. This makes one think about other obstacles that hampered firefly introduction:

  1. Status: Clearly, a solar panel on your roof gives another impression to the neighbours than being seen while carrying your battery down a slippery mountain trail. Solar energy is high-tech, clean, shiny, silent and luxurious while the firefly is second hand car technology, rusty, muddy, noisy and laborious.
  2. Technology push: There are large companies involved in spreading solar energy. They have built up a supply chain that reaches out to village level in areas where solar energy is widespread. To finance uneconomic demonstration projects in new areas, they have access to development funds. The firefly will never be promoted in such a way. In the Philippines, the biggest car battery supplier also produced solar batteries for Solar Home System and was actively promoting solar energy. I once spoke to their sales manager but he lost interest when he learned how cheap the firefly system is. Selling 10 Solar Home Systems and making a decent profit margin on it, is worthwhile. Selling one firefly charger, 10 batteries and a bunch of cables is not. They would have to charge an excessive profit margin on it to cover the costs of their Manilla-based staff, customers would be angry when they would find out and in the end, it would compete with their solar energy activities. This leads to a situation where the ones who might want to introduce the firefly technology, don't have the capacities and funds to do so while the ones who could do it, aren't interested because they can earn more by producing expensive goods for richer people.

I think those reasons played a major role in why the firefly technology never took off in the Philippines. I realize I played a role in it myself: If I would have been a smarter technician, I might have come up with a good design earlier and I would have found and solved all remaining technical issues. If I would have been a more enthousiastic salesman, I might have gotten this Philippine-wide introduction project off the ground. If I would have worked harder... etc. But I doubt whether that would have made such a difference that these two obstacles could have been overcome. I am open to discussion with anyone who thinks differently about this.

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