P3 Project Brings Improved Power to Rural Bhutan

Editors Note: This week we’ve asked members of P3 teams to share information about the sustainable design projects they’ve been working on to showcase at this year’s National Sustainable Design Expo.

By Meg Harper

Village scale micro-hydroelectric mini-grids provide renewable electricity to thousands of communities in remote locations throughout the world.   While promising, many of these systems are plagued by a common problem: brownouts occur frequently in the mornings and evenings during times of peak demand.  The lowered voltage that characterizes a brownout causes lights to dim, televisions to flicker and electrical appliances, particularly rice cookers, to not work properly.

For more than two years our group of Humboldt State University students and advisors has been working on the design of a “GridShare” device intended to reduce the occurrence of brownouts on these power-limited mini-electric grids.

In 2010, after winning a grant through the EPA’s People, Prosperity and the Planet (P3) Student Design Contest, a few of us traveled to Bhutan to assess the village of Rukubji as a site to perform a pilot installation of our GridShares.

Image of author and residents discussing gridshare. After receiving enthusiastic support from the Bhutan Power Corporation (BPC), the Department of Energy of Bhutan and the residents of Rukubji, the team worked to refine the design of our GridShares and arrange the logistics for the installation.

Following two years of design work requiring multiple prototypes and many revisions, the few months before the installation yielded a frenzy of GridShare assembly, testing and shipping.  Sponsorships from local and regional businesses helped to reduce the cost of manufacturing, while many volunteers helped the team finish the assembly and testing of each GridShare to assure its success in the field.

To accompany the GridShare installation, we also created a series of colorful bilingual posters and pamphlets to help the residents of Rukubji learn how to interact with the GridShare and better manage their limited electric system.

All of these preparations paid off! In July of 2011, with the help of electricians from the BPC, a constant pack of helpful children and countless cups of butter tea, we successfully installed 89 GridShares: one in every home in the village.  Residents report being able to consistently cook their rice, and say they are appreciative of the GridShare indicator lights that tell them when adequate power is available.

I, along with all of the students involved in the project, have gained a first-hand education in circuit design, low-cost manufacturing, grant writing, data analysis, development of educational materials and international project coordination.

But beyond all of these benefits, the opportunity to experience the rich Bhutanese culture and develop friendships with engineers, teachers and farmers halfway across the globe, has been invaluable.

About the Author: Guest blogger Meg Harper is a graduate research assistant at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California.