(Water)….power to the people! Visiting 165kW micro-hydro system in Chel

Deep in the remote highlands of Quiche, Guatemala lies the Ixil Maya community of Chel, where villagers are managing their own 165kW micro-hydro system, supplying power to over 400 households, through community enterprise. The Asociacion Hidroelectrica Chelense (AHC) is responsible for administration, operation and maintenance of the energy services scheme and is believed to be the first time that an indigenous people’s organization has benefited from the global carbon credit market.

We visited last week, with our local partners Fundacion Solar, a local NGO that has been active since 1995 promoting renewable energy and Saul Santos of Intervida Guatemala to learn more.

As we arrived there was a buzz in the air. Children were dressed in their finest traditional traje and the streets were lined with pine needles. The special occasion was the change over of the Junta Directiva (Board of Directors) of the AHC, which had been voted in democratically by the community. It was inspiring to see the level of community investment in the project, as we sat and watched the ceremony in the main square.

junta The changing of the Junta Directiva in the Parque Central

An essential theme of the project in Chel is the participation of local villagers. An initial community consultation process ensured that all members of the community had a good understanding of the potential project and the technology and agreed to the proposed plans for a tariff structure. Each family agreed to contribute with 80 days of labor to help in the civil works, in exchange for entry into the scheme, connection to the grid and home wiring. We were also amazed to learn that the community hand-build the mountain road in order to transport the equipment for their micro hydro system. When the rivers were too high to traverse, teams of men carried the huge electrical poles on their backs for miles to reach the remote community.

mill Women outside an electric-powered mill in Chel

The result is marvelous; the AHC is currently generating enough income from electricity sales to sustain their operation and maintenance costs. It also promotes the productive use of energy sources and has instigated economic development in the community, including the start up of a number of small enterprises. Here at AIDG Guatemala we are really interested in managing our Micro Hydro systems in a similar manner and it was a fantastic opportunity to see speak to the people in AHC and the consumers.

Duration: 16 min 41 sec (Spanish)

This episode looks at the example of the use of geothermal power in the production of dried fruit by Agroindustrias La Laguna. It also looks at the construction of a micro hydroelectric plant in Chel, Quiche, by the Asociación Hidroeléctrica Chelense (AHC), founded in 2001 with the support of the Fundación Solar. (around 6 min 42 sec)

Our next destination was to a potential microhydro site in Aquil Grande, Alta Verapaz, an epic journey through remote highland passes. On our way through the stunning valley heading from Chel back to Nebaj we passed through a huge construction site. Saul explained it was a 93MW Hydro-electric plant being built by a private company to sell the power to Union Fenosa, Guatemala’s private energy supplier to the rural poor (at inflated prices to the tariffs for urbanites..!).

Big = Better?

Cables will take power generated away from the area (where many communities still lack electricity) to a sub-station in Quetzaltenango. It reminded me of the lessons of Schumacher’s ‘Small is Beautiful’ and the value in small, simple and locally beneficial, appropriate technology. I pondered this and felt inspired about the huge capacity for AIDGs work as we bumped along the winding road!

The community of Aquil Grande is home to around 500 people, who are currently paying high electricity tariffs, particularly for their public street lighting. After clambering about in the stream with community members to conduct tests, it proved to be more than sufficient for a system to provide electricity for the coffee processing machinery, street lighting and the school, which is currently without power.

alexIntern Alex Surasky-Ysasi testing stream flow

The idea is to run the scheme in a similar model to Chel, with a community association running the scheme and selling the power to the coffee cooperative, powering the school and providing public street lighting at a third of the current cost. Therefore not only will it build technical and administrative capacity in the community, making the scheme more self-sustainable, but will also reduce the burden of expensive power bills, stimulate new businesses and help the coffee co-operative compete in the global marketplace.