Microhydro Brings Light to Remote Afghan Villages

Afghan worker builds a turbine crossflow.
One of 15 skilled Afghan workers employed by Remote Hydrolight in Afghanistan builds a turbine crossflow at a workshop in Kabul.
Training on how to maintain the forebay.
Afghan workers in the village of Daste Riwat, Panjshir Province, conduct training on how to maintain the forebay.
Afghan worker builds a turbine crossflow.
Training on how to maintain the forebay.

In Panjshir Province, about five hours north of Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul, families in the remote village of Daste Riwat now have access to clean, renewable energy—thanks to a microhydro plant built with support from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). 

“The people here are very happy about the electricity,” says Malay Ghalam Galani, the Daste Riwat school religious elder who donated some of his land to accommodate the plant. “It has brought brightness into the home, and this is a very good thing.” 

The Daste Riwat plant was installed in January 2009 as part of an USACE project to construct 105 microhydro units in seven of 34 Afghan provinces—one plant per village. The 130-kilowatt system was among the largest completed; the average system is about 10 kW. The last unit, in Parwan Province, is still under construction and awaiting additional funding for distribution lines. 

The project was made possible by the Commander’s Emergency Response Program, which enables U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan to fund rebuilding and reconstruction projects. “Projects like these gain the trust of the Afghan government and promote civil infrastructure improvements that positively impact villagers’ lives,” says U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Joel VanEssen, an officer assigned to the USACE as part of the U.S. military’s Afghanistan Pakistan Hands Program, which aims to build partnerships with local communities. 

Access to microhydro power has eased the villages’ dependence on kerosene lanterns, diesel generators, and wood-burning stoves, which are health and environmental hazards. 

Microhydro installer Owen Schumacher, who has lived and worked in Kabul for the past 18 years, completed the initial survey work and presented the idea to USACE back in 2005. “I was here when there was no electricity, and I know how depressing it can be,” says the South Dakota native, who has been installing and developing microhydro power systems in Afghanistan for 15 years. 

Schumacher first moved to Afghanistan to work for a solar energy organization, but after a few years, he saw the potential for hydro energy. “The high mountains receive snow that slowly melts throughout the year, forming streams and rivers. The many springs that flow down the hillsides make good sources for year-round hydro-power. Most villages are close to a stream or river and already use the water to power traditional stone water mills, so the concept of hydropower is not completely new to them,” he says. 

Since then, Schumacher has developed and tested multiple prototype systems—including a high-efficiency cross-flow turbine that was tested at the Waterpower Laboratory of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. In an effort to grow support for microhydro projects, he also held workshops to train Afghans how to manufacture, install, and repair these systems.  

In 2006, Schumacher’s company—Remote HydroLight, a for-profit business that builds community-owned microhydropower plants in remote areas of Afghanistan—was chosen by the USACE to share the project contract with Engineering Associates, a microhydro power installation company in Kabul. For the USACE project, Schumacher and his crew of 15 Afghan workers oversaw the installation of 97 units, as well as designed prototypes and trained employees of private shops in Kabul to build the turbines and electrical boxes. All of the components, with the exception of imported alternators, were fabricated locally.

Buy-in on a project by local elders is vital to the project’s success, and village cooperation is key to a plant’s future, VanEssen says. “We ask them for their opinion on where things should be,” Schumacher says. “By contributing their labor, they feel they own the plant when it is all built, and it is their plant.

Once a project was approved, the community was responsible for providing the labor for the installation and transporting all of the equipment to its site, which often meant long hours hauling parts on mules through the mountains on footpaths. When necessary, the community also built new channel or reinforced an existing canal from the nearest water source—a considerable amount of work that often involved cutting into the hillside and erecting several hundred feet of stone wall. 

Remote HydroLight provided installers, who worked side-by-side with the village laborers. Typically, one installer managed multiple installations in a watershed area, walking between the villages to check on the communities’ progress and give instructions as needed. Some smaller systems were installed in as little as three weeks, while others took close to a year to complete, due to discord in the village.

Most of the plants are sized to provide power for lights and small electronics, such as televisions, radios, and battery chargers. The average village family needs only about 60 W to 100 W of power for two or three 20-watt fluorescent lightbulbs. In most cases, the operator turns on the plant from sunset to sunrise because the water is used for irrigation during the daylight hours. 

After a plant is operational, the locals monitor the energy usage, keep the canal clean, and lubricate the turbine bearings regularly. Schumacher’s crew returns to the site to handle major problems as necessary. Otherwise, villagers can bring broken parts to his shop or one of the private shops where his trained technicians can repair the equipment. Maintenance and repair costs are covered by nominal monthly usage fees that are collected: 20 to 30 cents for each light (or the equivalent—a TV equals three lights) per household. For larger systems, watt-hour meters track each household’s consumption. 

The Daste Riwat plant—with two 65-kilowatt turbines—relies on an 8-foot-wide, 1-mile-long canal off the Panjshir River, and runs around the clock. The electricity generated is distributed through a mini-grid that feeds the village’s 110 compounds, which house two or three families each. 

Each compound is equipped with two fuses: one for a heavy-duty socket in the kitchen for a high-watt appliance  (such as a hot pot, water heater, or flat-bread cooker), and one for all the lights and other regular sockets (for items such as lights, televisions, washing machines, and computers).

To ensure everyone is charged accurately for usage, meters were installed in each compound. Every two months, the elders have a meter reader who writes down the amount used and then collects usage fees. The average family pays about $2.70 per month, which is used to pay the village operators and provide for any maintenance expenses, such as belts or grease.

Having seen how this project has transformed his village, Galani says he would like to see more projects like this that benefit his people. 

With the USACE project complete, Schumacher and his crew have moved on to other microhydro installations in the region. They are currently installing four prototype “Kaplan” turbines in the Nangarhar Province near Jalalabad. 

“Right now, it is getting more difficult to work in many areas of the country due to poor security. The Taliban are more organized and have sent cells all over this land, but we will continue to do what we can,” he says. “The Afghan people are hard workers and have been very eager to help install our small hydro plants. These types of projects can flourish in peaceful provinces and bring not only work for the people, but power too.”

—Michael O’Connor, with Kelly Davidson

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