Sunday, August 31, 2008

Danta Uno Update, August 31, 2008

Sergio has been traveling to the village this weekend to troubleshoot and expand the system. They have decided that a better billing cycle would be to start and end on the first day of the month, so Monday they will be "restarting" the billing process. I'm not clear on this, but I don't think they have started actually charging customers yet. That's OK, because there have been some other things that needed finalizing first.

To date, there are 15 houses connected to the grid. This is good news - and there's more. As I write this, the hydrogenerator has been running with the new dump load for about 24 hours!! The battery voltage climbed all the way to 59V, which is the upper limit I set before leaving. This seems to indicate that the dump load controller is working correctly. I talked Sergio through the process of lowering the upper limit to 56.4V, which is better for the batteries.

I could hear the excitement and enthusiasm in Sergio's voice, despite our terrible connection. A few weeks ago, Sergio's cell phone was stolen when his house was robbed (again). So when I wired him some money for project-related expenses, I included a little for a new phone for him. It's a "company phone" so we can talk while he is in the village, and since it's prepaid by him, he can also use it for his personal use.

I'm anxious to return and see things for myself. I am planning to do so in about a month, perhaps in time for the first bill collection. That might be interesting.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Boys, Bulbs, and Biodiesel

This is Enrique. He is nine years old, but he looks more like seven. He lives in a small village a few miles off the paved road on the north coast of Honduras. His home has no electricity, although water is delivered to their house at a single spigot near his house. Behind their two room house is a cinder block outhouse that sees a lot of action. Enrique has four brothers and two sisters; he is in the very middle, and sometimes gets overlooked. But he is a happy boy, and lately he has been excited about the changes his family is experiencing.
Today is a special day for Enrique. He is going to the city, something he has only done once or twice before. Mother made him put on his best clothes for the trip, so he put on his "imported" blue tee shirt with English writing on it. He doesn't know what it says, but North American visitors would recognize it as an NBA Championship commemorative shirt from 2001.

His family rents a small plot of land, about an acre, on which they grow most of their food: beans, rice, and plantains. Free ranging chickens walk in and out of their front door, although sometimes they get eaten for dinner. Several days a week, his father and older brothers walk a mile down the footpath to work at a palm oil plantation. Enrique likes to play in the plantation, because the trees are planted in straight lines that go on and on as far as he can see. He and his friends run beneath them and enjoy the shady canopy seemingly held aloft by innumerable living pillars. Much of his life takes place in or around this plantación, this orchard on steroids, itself bigger than his entire village many times over.

On the days his father and brothers work at the plantation, they spend the morning riding in the back of a large truck that Enrique's uncle drives up and down the rows. When the truck stops near a palm tree, the workers use a long-armed sickle like a modified machete to reach high into the tree and cut loose a cluster of fruit. Palm fruit looks like watermelon-sized clusters of gigantic, prickly, reddish grapes. But unlike grapes, they are relatively tough and are not damaged by the fall when cut loose from forty-foot trees. Another worker gathers them from the ground and tosses them into the back of the truck, and it goes on like this for about six hours a day. They are paid 80 Lempiras each, or about $4.

When the truck gets full, it returns to a central location where, today, Enrique meets his father as he dismounts the truck. While the load of fruit is recorded with a scribble in a notebook by a foreman, Enrique's father washes up at a water spigot, and changes his clothes. The driver, Enrique's uncle, receives a receipt from the foreman and is joined in the front seat by a security guard equipped with a rusty shotgun, two shells, and a prepaid cell phone, presumably to call for backup.

Enrique and his father also climb into the truck to start their journey to the city. The foreman doesn't mind the extra riders; it is common for rural Hondurans to "catch" rides from friends or even strangers.

Enrique has only been in a motor vehicle a few times before, and he finds it exciting but disconcerting. He stares at the controls with wonder, but he fidgets a little because he doesn't know how to act in the truck. His unfamiliarity with the (unused) seat belts and door mechanisms remind him that his family is poor. As they crawl down the potted paved road at 40 miles per hour, lots of pickups and smaller trucks pass them as if they are sitting still, though to Enrique it seems they are moving very fast.

After an hour or so, they pull the truck into a gated processing plant and get in line behind half a dozen other trucks that have come from other plantations. They are not allowed to go inside the plant, so they wait in the hot truck while the fruit is unloaded into a hopper to be processed. They are good at waiting, and at being hot. They get a lot of practice at both.

Later, his uncle drives Enrique and his father around the plant for the next leg of their journey, but for the fruit itself, this is the end of the line. It will be crushed and smashed and filtered into huge tanks of golden orange palm oil. Tank trucks are filled with palm oil on the far side of the plant, and that is where his father is introduced to another man, Fidor.

Fidor drives a tank truck and is friends with Enrique's uncle. Goodbyes are said and Enrique, his father, and Fidor climb aboard the biggest vehicle Enrique has ever seen. They are headed for the city where, apparently, they need a lot of palm oil.

In the city, Enrique's father meets his other brother, Miguel, who is a taxi driver and knows the city well. They go to a few stores that Miguel knows and trusts and Enrique's father buys some familiar items: a new machete, an aluminum cooking pot for Mother, and a new hammock. Then Miguel helps Enrique's father with a new thing that Enrique doesn't understand.

By the time they return home to the village, Enrique's father has explained that the new thing is an electric light, and that their village will soon be wired for electricity. Enrique is fuzzy on the details, but his father seems genuinely excited, something Enrique has seldom seen.

You see, although they live far from the national electric grid, the plantation owner is partnering with a private company to start a village-level electric company called "Energía Para Aldeas" or EPA. It means energy for villages.

A small portion of the palm fruit will be processed into palm oil with small equipment similar to that in the processing plant. It will then be converted into biodiesel with another machine at a cost low enough that electricity can be economically produced with a simple diesel generator.

Electricity will not solve all their problems or meet all their needs. But the village will be better off than it was. The people will no longer have to use "candils", or home-made oil lamps, for lighting their homes at night. But beyond the improved quality of light, the improved respiratory health, the improved safety from fires, their is a dawning hope in their hearts. "If we can have electricity in our homes, what else is possible?" New businesses arise. A carpenter can use power tools. Someone buys an ice maker and begins selling ice to preserve food and cool drinks. Enrique can do his homework at night. They can finally charge their cell phones!

Someone even buys a television and a pirated DVD of "Walker, Texas Ranger" season three. Oh, wait. That's not really an improvement...

[This story is fiction based on fact. Regular readers (hi Mom) of this blog will see the connection with my work. But these things did not happen, yet. This is an expression of "what if?". All the photos except the light bulbs were taken by me in Honduras, 2008.]

Where Have I Bean?

Sorry for the delay since my last post. I have been starting a new semester and readjusting to the fast-paced, maxed-out cultural experience known as American middle class suburbia. I have found the readjustment to be a little difficult, frankly. There is a phenomenon among missionaries and others who work overseas called "reentry". When people come back home from living and working abroad, they sometimes have difficulty readjusting to the culture. It's similar to culture shock and is sometimes called reverse culture shock.

For me, this means I have been a little depressed. I am fatigued and tired and haven't had much to say. But last night The M said to me, "I wish you would blog". Even though she sees me and talks to me every day, she still wants to read my thoughts and feelings. I'm not sure, but I think she likes me.


While in Honduras, I ate a lot of refried beans. I can't get enough of them. They grow a red bean (frijoles rojo) that is really superior to the pinto beans one gets in Mexican restaurants in the states. Don't get me wrong, I like those too. But the red beans in Central America are the best beans I have ever eaten.

Imagine how delighted I was to find a bumper sticker that said "Yo ♥ Los Frijoles, Honduras" at a gift shop in the airport!! I put it on my car, intentionally crooked, and it looks... well... kind of odd, but that's OK. I'm kind of odd too.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Pico Bonito National Park, Honduras

Our time in Honduras, especially the last few weeks, was very full. After six days of 12-14 hour work days, we needed some R&R. So on our last Sunday, we went to visit a beautiful national park called Pico Bonito. It's not far from La Ceiba, so we all loaded up in our somewhat beaten rental SUV and drove out about 18 km to the point we turn off the paved road and into a huge pineapple field. By this I mean a huge field of regular sized pineapples, not a field, large or small, of huge pineapples. From there we drove another kilometer or so to the entrance of the park.

On the drive to the park we played 80's and 90's music from The M's iPod. Jonathan and AJ, in particular, enjoyed singing along.

The picture above shows the entrance to the park. The mountains are close to the road here, but the strip of land between them and the road is chalk-o-block full of pineapples. In an earlier post, I showed a photograph of these fields taken from the air and mistakenly identified them as aloe vera. This only proves you shouldn't believe anything I say.

There is a small waterfall near the entrance and we all enjoyed a little swim in the delightfully cool and amazingly clear water.

If you were a strong enough swimmer, you could swim against the current and reach the point where the water crashed into the pool. The force of the water was nearly painful on your head, and it would push you under and out if you didn't fight against it constantly. It reminded me of the power we are capturing with the hydrogenerator; it's the same power of falling water.

My boys enjoyed their day and the extra attention from the students. We really had great teams this year and I was glad that my family could be part of it! Fun was had by all, most of the time. I put together a little video that, I believe, captures the spirit of that day. Lighten up.

Home Again

Seven and a half weeks after we left our home in central Texas, we are safely and gratefully back home. Thanks for all of your prayers, encouragements, blood/sweat/tears, and donations! I'm going to bed...

Friday, August 15, 2008

A Fix For The Techies

You know what they say: you can't spell geek without double-E. This post is just for the engineers in the blogosphere.

From left to right are my friends the circuit breaker panel, the inverter, and the dump load controller. Interesting story about the dump load - we needed a 2.3 Ohm resistor capable of dissipating 1000 Watts, but we didn't have the right part in the village because, frankly, I didn't think we would get that far in the construction.

So I started looking around at various metallic items around the site. I found a piece of rebar, and a drill bit, but both of them measured to have less resistance than I needed. I tried to use the drill bit anyway, so I used electrical tape to attach it to some wires from the dump load controller. It didn't work, however. I considered putting the rebar in series with the drill bit, just so I could say I did it, but decided to use the coffee maker instead (which happened to be in the car). We electrical-taped the coffee maker plug prongs to the wires and gave it a try. It was just about right, and soon we had the hydro generating power and the dump load controller controlling the dump load. Since then, we have designed a new dump load consisting of seven, hot water heater elements in parallel.

Here is the completed canal. On the left is a big metal box with the generator and Ryan, who, is technically not part of the system. In the middle is Walter standing on the pipes, and Jonathan standing on the bank behind them. The left-most vertical pipe is where the water flows out. The slanted pipe and the right-most vertical pipe are actually just concrete forms for the posts that support the structure.

Here you can see the generator in the big metal box. We were able to optimize the performance (for our water conditions) to about 770 Watts.

Ryan, AJ, me, Jonathan, and Matilde. Elizabeth was off working while we hung around and took pictures.

[By the way, I began this post in Honduras, but I am finishing it in Houston. We have all returned now and left Sergio in charge of completing customer connections, paying the employees, and supervising the maintenance. I plan to call him in a day or so.]

In Such A Way

The power is on! Our power lines are energized and homes are being connected to them daily. The batteries are being fed by the diesel generator in part, and, get this, the hydrogenerator too! That's right, we started generating power from water yesterday! We still have some minor bugs to work out, but essentially, we finished on our last possible day!

This is Adolfo's pregnant wife, Waldina. She is cooking by candil. A candil is a kerosene-powered, home made, Molotov coctail style light. The light quality is on par with a large candle. This is what the houses are like at night now. It looks romantic, but it's hard to work or read by, and it's expensive and dangerous to operate.

And here is one of our first electricity-connected buildings. It is a brand new church, built near the place where our generator is. It is lit by three compact fluorescent bulbs that, combined, use the power of one, sixty watt light incandescent bulb. Their light output, however, is much better than a single incandescent, and orders of magnitude better than candils.

The families were gathering for Thursday night church. This is Walter's oldest daughter.

This is Walter's younger daughter (left), and another little girl from down the road.

This is the front of the church which is still under construction.

You can see the glare off the top of my head!

Ryan inside the church, taking a well-earned break at the end of the day.

AJ, Jonathan, Walter, and Sergio are bunched up on the smallest church pews I have ever seen. I am surprised it held their weight.

We have deployed the equipment and it is working. The employees have been trained and will continue to connect houses to our lines, to maintain the system, to educate the villagers, and to sell compact fluorescent light bulbs. Ryan and I are planning to return in October to check on progress, and we will be in weekly email contact with Sergio in the meantime.

I am delighted that we were able to get this far. At times I thought we would not. I am relieved and excited about the future here, and I know the villagers are happy and excited too. That gives me much satisfaction. The guys that we know the best, Walter, Adolfo, and Matilde, are enthusiastic and full of smiles.

My prayer for this work is best described by Mathew 5:14-16 where Jesus said:
"You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a peck-measure, but on the lamp stand; and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify the Father who is in heaven."

May it be.

Noehmi's Update

Good news! Noehmi's surgery went well. She spent one night in the hospital and has now gone home. When The M went to pay the last of the bill, her mother was very, very grateful and gave us her thanks. So I am passing that thanks on to you who made it possible! Be blessed all of you who gave and prayed!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Noehmi's Surgery, Take 2

This is Noehmi. She is six and tiny and very cute. She has a double hernia and we are trying to help her get it fixed. Many of you have offered to contribute to this endeavor, and her mother and father appreciate it very much, as do I. Yesterday we went to pick her up with her parents and take her to the hospital.

We drove to the center of town and picked them up. Her father, in addition to being a subsistence farmer, is the pastor of this little church in the village. It is the only other church besides the one we normally work with, the Baptist church that Santos pastors. This one is prettier.

This is Noehmi outside her house yesterday. Hers is one of the poorer families in Pueblo Nuevo, I think. She had on her fanciest clothes for the trip, as did her parents.

Unfortunately, when we got in the car, we noticed it had a flat tire. This delayed our departure BY NEARLY THREE HOURS! The reasons for this delay are too boring to write, but suffice it to say that it was both fun and stressful.

Here is Jonathan and Noehmi's father trying to read the car's instruction manual in Spanish. The book used the words "mango" and "gato" but not in their normal sense. Apparently these words also mean some car part that none of us could identify, and yet is crucial for changing a flat tire in less than three hours. Everybody, including the villagers, found "mango" amusing, and the little boy on the right pointed up in the mango tree we were standing under.

We put the warning triangle out while we changed the tire in case some high speed trafic might come up on us... on a horse or something.

After we let the car down off the jack, we saw that our spare tire was also flat, although not as flat as the original. I decided we were going to try and drive out on it anyway, but the family stayed behind in case we weren't able to make it out, which we did, gratefully. I was a little concerned that crossing the river with a flat tire might be difficult, but it wasn't any more difficult than normal.

So this morning, The M dropped the work crew at Danta Uno and then picked up the family at the suspension bridge. The mother gave her a big hug when she saw her, which was a surprisingly demonstrative display of affection. They all went to the hospital and got her examined and scheduled for tomorrow at 11 a.m.. The hospital is contributing 10,000 Lempiras (about $500) which will leave the bill at around $750 plus some expenses for food, and a hotel for a couple of nights. We have this covered now, thanks to you generous donors.

We shared a scripture with the family, Galatians 6:10 which says:
"So then, as we have opportunity, let us work that which is good toward all men, and especially toward them that are of the household of the faith."

I told him that even though we work with a different church than the one he pastors, that we share the same father, and are therefore family. His face brightened at this, but then he mumbled something about mangos that I couldn't follow.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Saturday's Progress

We have been going all-out for the last six days, trying to get the project complete in time. Today was pay day for the employees, and this made me feel more like we were a real company somehow. Sorry, no benefits guys.

The canal team (Ryan and Jonathan) finished their concrete work and began the installation of the big honkin' tubes. It looks like a double-barrel shotgun to me. Take aim at poverty. OK, that was corny.

Casita de Poder - the powerhouse. I worked in there for several hours today. It was really hot and humid and I was sweating like only a middle aged fat guy can. But it was worth it because by the end of the day, the inverter was making 120 Volts just like it was supposed to. We got the master breakers installed and were able to successfully charge batteries using the diesel generator. Next step, hydrogenerator.
AJ and Elizabeth worked with the village guys (Santiago, Walter, and Adolfo) to install power poles and string wire. They have now run about 2000 feet of it.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Friday Night Update

I know that most of you read the blog because of the interesting technical details I give. You know, how many volts here, or how many inches in diameter there, but sometimes you techies need to stop and smell the roses. Here are some pictures from the last couple of days in the village of Danta Uno.

Isn't she adorable?

This is Adolfo and Jonathan bending rebar for the concrete columns. I saw them with their matching gloves and contrasting hats and was struck by the image. In ways, they are alike, but in others, they are worlds apart. Heavy.

The flat area in the middle of the picture is a soccer field where, presumably, the children of Danta Uno play soccer, and the soccer moms of Danta Uno park their minivans and chitchat.

This is a snake, I forget the name, con-bla-bla or something, that was in a tree hanging over the road near Walter's house where we had lunch. It was about 6 feet long. I was told it was non-poisonous.
I drove to the hardware store in a nearby town called Jutiapa. Nearby was a butcher shop with meat hanging on hooks over the sidewalk! Inside there was a dude cutting steaks with - get this - a band saw. It was just like seventh grade wood shop but with meat.
"What's your semester project?"
"I'm making fajitas."
"Cool, I'm making a rack of ribs."
At Walter's house where we had lunch, the chickens and dogs wander in and out of the doors. I have no idea how they know which chickens are theirs and which are their neighbors.

This is AJ wearing his high tech shirt that breathes and dries quickly. I think I might have to get one. It has lots of pockets. This picture was taken at the power house after he used the drill to make mounting holes for the inverter. This baby cut through the cinder blocks like butter. They are easy compared to granite boulders.

I put this picture on the blog because it has a lot of little details. You can see the big spool of cable - a bobina in Spanish (think bobbin). You can see our first tree/power pole behind AJ. And you can see the power house a little bit.

Here we are starting to run the power lines.

Santiago has no fear of heights. He leans his ladder up against the pole and up he goes. Walter and I are pulling the wires tight while AJ and Elizabeth begin their May pole dance.

Elizabeth has been INCREDIBLY helpful and has many talents. We all think she is something special.
Here Jonathan is sitting on the first concrete column. It will support the big honkin' pipes that will come from the dam behind him. We are not building a dam, but rather reusing an old one built for drinking water collection several decades ago.

Noemi's Surgery

It looks like Noemi, the six-year-old girl from Pueblo Nuevo with a double hernia, will be well enough for surgery next Monday. We are planning to bring her family into the city on that day. She was too sick for surgery last time. Her mother told us it was a virus, but it turns out that it was a pretty severe virus: Dengue Fever.

But she is passed that now, and smiles much more frequently, as you might imagine. I taught her how to give me five and I think she likes me. This is the best picture I have of her; sorry you can't see better.

The surgery is going to cost about $750, and putting the family in a hotel and helping them with other miscellaneous costs might be another $50. I have had several folks tell me they want to contribute, and the total of these "email donations" is about $370. That leaves us about $430 short. Send me an email if you want to contribute. This is the final call... probably.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Out Ridin' Fences

After looking at the difference in cost and performance of buried wire and overhead wire, I have realized that overhead is much more practical. I had hoped to not have to use it since the sight of power lines is somewhat despoiling of the natural beauty of the place. However, I was told by one influential Honduran, who shall remain nameless, that the people don't care about seeing power lines anyway, and that they don't think like me in that way. I can believe this because they are in "survival culture" not a "comfort culture" like our own. Still, I found it hard to use overhead lines, and wanted to bury them. But when I saw how much cheaper they would be, I had to give in.

We calculated that we needed about 150 poles which would be made from trees. At first I was concerned that all the trees in the area would be cut down for this purpose, but when we tasked two of our employees, Adolfo and Santiago, to get us a dozen poles to start with, they came up with a great solution. It was a great case of appropriate technology.

Their solution came from the Madreado tree, which grows like crazy here. The people use their straight branches as fence poles for their barbed wire fences. When you cut off a branch of this tree and stick it in the ground, it does not die. Instead, it sprouts leaves and, presumably, roots. So almost all the barbed wire fences in this part of rural Honduras are constructed with these trees. New fences look like bare posts, but old fences look like rows of trees. I shot the following video of some cows walking by a fence like this. They look like uniformly sized trees in a straight line.

Anyway, Adolfo and Santiago used these madreado trees as power poles. So in a few years, instead of having fewer trees, they will actually have more trees - albeit connected by wires.

After they put in the first dozen poles, Adolfo and Walter began running the first spool of wire! Walter has a bad arm that resulted from a childhood injury, but he can lift more with his left arm than I can with both of mine.