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Peru spearheads open-source power


The La Tortuga project aims for a more community-based approach than that of large corporates. Photo: Sam Howzit, under a CC License.

On the high desert of northern Peru, the 5,000 people living in La Tortuga rely on fresh water shipped by lorry to meet their needs. They have electricity (from the grid), but they also have their own natural resources (lots of wind and sun), and want to develop these in a way that can benefit them and the communities nearby.

In December 2012,  the organization I work for, Onawi, made a formal agreement with the residents of the small town to begin developing a community power project.

This is local power, but with a big perspective. The project not only aims to host a wind farm, but also to build turbines using open designs, while developing local renewable energy businesses.

Wind energy is a mature technology, so although the huge modern turbines now being erected in the North Sea and in Britain are covered by many patents, the basic technologies for functioning turbines are well known and not constrained by intellectual property regimes.

In many parts of the world, robust turbines of an appropriate size and requiring little maintenance are more important than squeezing out the last drops of improved efficiency. At a small scale this has been recognized by the successful and pioneering designs of Hugh Piggott whose vision has brought small turbines to homes in Scotland as well as to villages in Nepal, Uganda and elsewhere.

Power is not just about electricity. Because of its distributed nature, renewable energy offers a possibility to contribute to a socially just, as well as an ecologically sustainable, future world. But there is a very real danger that the renewables industry could become an extractive industry like any other: destroying local habitats and livelihoods for the benefit of others far away. The issues with palm oil show this clearly, as do the recent protests in Oaxaca, Mexico, where local people have been resisting wind farms from which they say they do not benefit. 

By using open designs and distributed knowledge, different forms of business and expertise sharing can develop. This will allow industries with related skills in electrical or mechanical engineering to participate and become active players in a shift to a low-carbon economy. So, a local manufacturer of wind-driven water pumps, engine repair shops, fibreglass boat builders, telecommunication tower builders and others may all play a role. In future one can imagine skill transfers that are not from North to South, but on a South-South axis, using the more relevant expertise that relates to more similar circumstances. In this way, both the natural resources and the knowledge to turn this to power can be more equitably distributed globally.

As has been shown in computer software, openness is also a driver for innovation. Solutions will arise to fix problems that are different from those encountered in the technologically sophisticated, high-precision and centrally controlled, vertically integrated environment of the current wind industry. Building a turbine is, however, not the same as writing software code – in particular, it takes significant capital investment and has real physical consequences. For this reason, full design testing is required to make sure the turbine can withstand stress and is safe. It is not trivial, and not cheap, but neither is it ground-breaking; the procedures are well known.

Along with the residents of La Tortuga, we will be working with the NGO Tropico Seco and the local municipality. We will be working with the community to erect and maintain an anemometer to measure the winds and identify potential local technical partners to help develop the industry.

Open innovation and the transformation of local industries may sound novel, perhaps even aspirational. However, there is a very real example of where this has happened. The Danish wind industry (and arguably the global wind industry) was  built on this basis.

The La Tortuga project is one of the first steps to turn this new way of harnessing wind power into a reality – and really open power to the people.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 458 This exclusive is part of our free software issue. You can read the digital freedom keynote, or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.

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