A long climb to energy access: an off-grid success story

Thursday January 15th, 2015 - Claudia Canales

Claudia Canales, a Smart Village Project leader describes her visit to the remote community of  Amaguaya, recently in receipt of energy from a newly constructed micro-hydro plant. The visit was in preparation for a Workshop to be held in the Bolivia later this year – ed.

I was fortunate to arrive in Bolivia a few days earlier than the rest of the Smart Villages delegation (project leaders Bernie Jones and John Holmes). This gave me the opportunity to visit Amaguaya, a small village nested on the slopes of the Cordillera Real mountain range, about 4000 metres above the sea-level. What sets this community of 56 households (of permanent residents) apart from the other rural communities in the area, is a small hydroelectric station. The plant, inaugurated 7 months ago, was financed by Svenska Postkod Stiftelsen and the municipal government of Guanay.

Whilst construction of the power station was directed by “Soluciones Prácticas” the Bolivian branch of the NGO Practical Action, the power station is owned and managed by the Amaguaya community, who also contributed all the labour and local materials (such as sand and stones) needed to build it.

Amaguaya now has electric lights, hot water (critical where temperatures at night are often below zero), a freezer to store vaccines and a sterilisation cabinet in the Health Centre. The school, which caters for children from many smaller communities in the area now has electricity. The community now has access to radios and TV sets a benefit of an electricity supply that should not be underestimated. Electric cooking stoves are next on the list of priorities, as the village lies above the tree line and wood for cooking is hard to come by.

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Amaguaya village. Fifty 56 households live in the village, although the school and health centre also cater to nearby communities. The village was electrified in June 2014.

My journey starts at 7 am from La Paz. Covering the 120 km distance from the capital takes 5 hours on a good day. Most of the route consists of a single small track that crosses a series of connecting valleys leading to a high mountain pass (5000m above the sea level). On the other side, dropping towards the cloud forest of the lower valleys, lies Amaguaya.

Carlos Reza from Practical Action, who oversaw the construction of the station, explains to me that transport constituted the highest cost of the project and also presented the biggest logistical problem. Looking at the small track we are driving on, I am not surprised, and it is not easy to imagine how the vehicle carrying the electricity poles managed to navigate the sharp turns along the way.

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Carlos Reza, Don Vincente and sons inspect the equipment in the power house.

I learn that the truck carrying some of the heaviest equipment (turbine, generator, electric poles, etc.) did get stuck on the track and had to be abandoned overnight while the team looked for help. The returned to find the soil completely frozen around the vehicle the next morning. Ice picks came in handy.

I was pleased our trip was uneventful in comparison. We arrived to the few scattered houses that make up Amaguaya in the early afternoon. While the journey was a bit bumpy in places, the scenery more than made up for the discomfort. The cloud forest lies just below the mountain range so water in Amaguaya is in no shortage. As the humidity raises and condenses just before crossing the mountain range: rain is frequent all year round (I can personally testify having been caught in a downpour twice).

During the afternoon we visited the hydroelectric station, of 60kW capacity, together with local, don Vicente. He was in charge of the daily maintenance of the canals and station. The turbine needed to be inspected, and stretches of the canal that need repairs or routine maintenance had to be identified. Carlos points out to don Vincente that llamas should be kept off the area above the powerhouse, as they tend to dislodge rocks, and these could cause severe damage to the equipment.

Although the project was formally completed with the inauguration of the station, Practical Action provides an additional 6 months support to build capacity – not only in technical matters such as maintenance and small repairs of the canals and power house machinery, but also in administering and managing the company that will be in charge of supplying electricity to the community. This support is critical on both fronts, since many community projects also struggle with the day-to-day management of large projects.

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Amaguaya’s street lightning.

Running the small community company is not a trivial task: the members needs to agree on tariffs, issue contracts, and ensure compliance with payments (for example, by cutting off supply to households who fail to sign the contract or pay bills). They also need to elect members of the community who will be responsible for maintenance, to ensure the company can provide a reliable and professional service, important if the community decides to sell surplus electricity to nearby villages. A suitable reward for their time and effort needs to be agreed. In Amaguaya, this proved to be a contentious issue.

The company also needs to open a bank account (for which a trip to the nearby city of El Alto is required), and ensure the company’s accounts and records can satisfy potential auditors. The community company will formally hand over ownership of the power station (while retaining the responsibility of running it) to the district government so that the latter takes responsibility for large repairs not due to mismanagement or neglect (for example, should lightning strike and blow up the transformer).

Electricity has transformed the village, and most families now spend less on energy than when they relied on using kerosene and batteries. The new life also takes some adjusting: Carlos related how during the first days several villagers went to sleep with the lights and television sets left on, and some were curious to hear people in cities usually do otherwise. Something that those of us used to take electricity for granted may find surprising.