by Roberto Verzola

The Center for Renewable Energy and Sustainable Technology (CREST) is hard at work on its microhydro agenda.

It is partnering with Galing Pook awardee, the LGU of San Luis, Aurora, and other local governments on trials to bring down the capital expenses for microhydro installations below the capex of mini- and mega-hydroelectric projects.

This agenda involves several parallel efforts, patterned after how the microcomputer industry attained economies of scale:

  1. Use off-the-shelf industrial products instead of madeto-order components. For instance, we have been experimenting with the use of induction motors as generators (see mR#1). Similarly we are also looking at ordinary pumps as turbines.
  2. Competitive local fabrication. Turbines are one of the most expensive microhydro components. There are very few local fabricators today. LGU San Luis found this out, when they were quoted a turbine fabrication cost that was nearly twice what they had earlier paid for a similar unit. San Luis has now tasked some of its engineers and technicians to learn turbine fabrication, as a first step in turning San Luis mayor Mariano Tangson’s dream of making his town a center of excellence in microhydro technology and pioneering a transition path to a renewable future that other local governments can take.
  3. Downsize microhydro site capacities to allow for lower operating pressures that can use cheaper penstock materials. This leads to a focus on low-head sites. As an alternative, high-head sites can be partitioned into a cascade of low-head portions.
  4. Identify pricing “sweet spots”, i.e., project costs that are low enough that they easily fit the budgets of the product’s target markets.
  5. Develop “killer apps”. Texting was the killer app of the Philippine mobile phone industry. This application rapidly created a mass market for mobile phones, which allowed the industry to reach new levels of economies of scale that led to even lower mobile phone prices, triggering a virtuous economic cycle of market growth and declining prices. One such killer app might be a microhydro product that can extract electricity from existing irrigation canals and other gravity-fed water projects.
  6. “Plug-and-play” products that reduce technical barriers for potential adopters. For instance, a low-cost drop-in microhydro product for irrigation canals can power existing barangay street lights might be irresistible to local governments.
  7. Take advantage of low-cost digital electronics. Run-of-the-river microhydro facilities tend to pose greater challenges in keeping their power output within the specified voltage and frequency range due to greater variability in water flow. Hydraulic flow control usually involves very expensive governors that add significantly to the capital costs. The CREST approach is to adopt the standard approach of the wind and solar power industries, i.e., turn the turbine’s “wild AC” output (fluctuating voltage and frequency) into direct current, like a solar panel’s output, and use off-the-shelf inverters to produce “clean AC” (voltage and frequency within specified range).

This is a substantial agenda. CREST invites other microhydro stakeholder to help turn this agenda into reality. If we succeed, we will start seeing in the microhydro industry the same declining price trends that we now see in the solar and wind power sectors.

Photo by Suneco Microhydro