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Low-Head Microhydro

For the past several years, Chris Greacen has been living in Bangkok, Thailand, with his wife Chom and their two children, 5-year-old Ty and 3-year-old Isara. He and Chom run a small, nonprofit organization called Palang Thai. ("Palang" means energy or empowerment. "Thai" means freedom or independence.) Through policy and hands-on activities, the organization works to improve governance in the region's energy sector, and to increase the use of renewable energy in Thailand and the Mekong region of Southeast Asia. They've enjoyed several victories in their tenure: drafting Thailand's net metering regulations, helping to shape legislation that establishes an independent energy regulator, and installing solar-electric systems for medical clinics in war-torn areas of Burma (see "Solar Lights for a Dark Time in Burma" in HP//3). Here Chris writes about one of their most recent projects: the installation of a low-head microhydro system in northern Thailand.

Above: The author and his family in Doi Inthanon, Chiang Mai Province, Thailand.

Left: This AC-direct microhydro system provides a source of renewable electricity for a community training center.

Story & photos by Chris Greacen

Last summer, while my family and I were visiting Doi Inthanon National Park in northern Thailand, we spent some time in Mae Klang Luang—a hill-tribe village about 12 miles inside the park. Though the 200-year-old village only recently opened its doors to tourists, it has quickly become a sought-after destination for its cultural and ecological allure. The village sits in the shadow of Doi Inthanon, Thailand's tallest mountain—among the easternmost beginnings of the Himalayas. The villagers are members of the Karen ethnic minority who migrated to the Thai/Burma area centuries ago from Mongolia. Though the village is very traditional in most ways—the people still harvest and thresh rice by hand—the electric grid was brought into Mae Klang Luang in 2007. Even with utility electricity on hand, some of the villagers still prefer energy independence—tapping the watershed's abundant streams and rivers to generate their own electricity.

Below: Local lumber, rocks, sandbags, and bamboo were used to construct the weir and waterway.

We ended up in Mae Klang Luang after a friend told me about a homestay program that would allow us to live with a local family for a few days. Chom and I liked the idea of supporting the community while exposing our children to the Karen way of life. When we finally arrived in the village, after a two-hour car ride along winding roads, we were surprised to find a film production crew, complete with police barricades, setting up to film a documentary that involved a member of the Thai royal family. An overzealous policeman told us that we could not stay in the village and we would have to turn back. Luckily, a local man, admittedly upset by the policeman's readiness to turn away tourism dollars, overheard the conversation and intervened. Our new friend introduced himself as Somsak Khiriphumthong and directed us down the road to a host home.

Later that evening, I met up with Somsak at a bamboo shed where community members gather to roast, grind, and drink locally produced organic coffee. I came to learn that Somsak runs a training center that teaches local people about the importance of organic farming, environmental preservation, and watershed management. His mission, as he explained, is to promote ecologically sound microenterprise while still preserving the cultural traditions of his people. Somewhere between our first and second cups of coffee, the topic shifted to renewable energy and my work with Palang Thai.

Somsak admitted that he had reluctantly brought grid electricity to the training center from the Provincial Electricity Authority (PEA), Thailand's rural distribution company. Initially he had resisted using PEA because of his concern for the environment. "Trees have to be cut down to get the power

Below: Local lumber, rocks, sandbags, and bamboo were used to construct the weir and waterway.

Above: The 6.5-foot-long draft tube is attached to the trough.

poles in, and PEA electricity comes from Thailand's mineral resources, like coal," says Somsak. "When they take coal from the mountains, they destroy them, and the air too. Plus, PEA power means paying a bill every month."

Even with grid electricity now on site, Somsak was still interested in using a nearby stream to generate electricity to power some of the center's loads. Somsak said that he had tried his hand at hydro-electricity several years ago, and rehashed one failed attempt that involved a makeshift Pelton turbine he made from a bicycle wheel and an automotive alternator. After talking some more about the water resource at the center, I said, "Well, I know of a turbine that I can bring up. Let's do it."

AC-Direct $100 Microhydro System



Trash Rack:



15 ft. long

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