Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Email to European Small Hydro Association

Sick of writing so much in emails, then having to rewrite it all again into bloggage, so what the hell - i'm pasting it as it is. This more or less summarises what I'm doing right now.

As I explained today on the phone, I am undertaking a research on the potential for old water mills to be transformed as micro hydro generators. My focus area is the municipality of Monção, in the far North of Portugal, in the river Minho basin. This is a small county of around 200km2, with two main rivers feeding into the Minho, and many smaller streams feeding these two tributaries. Average annual precipitation is around 1250mm.

I have spent a few days going through a regional Kadastra of old mills, and found that there were, in the 1940s, over 650 water mills in this county alone. At present, almost none of them are functioning and not one produces electricity. Most are in a state of disrepair or ruin. But many of them are still intact, at least the open water channels (levadas) are still there, parts of some of the weirs, the mill buildings themselves and so on.

I am trying to find out what kind of turbine would fit within these old mill settings. Most have low head (1 to 3 m) and flow is limited by the size of the channels (I have estimated flow at between 110 l/s and 200 l/s).

As I'm sure you are aware, European (and national) river acts and regulations mean that concession to extract water or do any construction along rivers is... complicated, but not impossible. I have met with the regional authorities in this regard and they stated clearly that they are quite keen to support the rehabilitation of old mills, as long as it adheres to the strict ecological / environmental guidelines.

With regard to hydro electric turbines I have found it rather difficult to find a system that could work with this low head/flow. And most companies I have contacted are not interested (it's too small they all say). I am not deterred by their lack of interest. I feel certain that there must be a technology that can bring these engines of former rural enterprise back to life.

For example, I have read about the Nepalese "ghatta" wheel - which is remarkably similar to the horizontal wheels in this area. Due to lack of rural electrification in Nepal, the ghattas have continued to function, and for some years now a local intermediate technology group and various external actors have helped develop an "improved water mill" (IWM). This now provides a little power, as well as the grinding or milling services they also need. It is, by all accounts, a "multi functional" system. Could these IWMs could be tranferred, or adapted, to the local setting here?

Perhaps the nascent hydrodynamic screw made by Ritz-Atro could work in some of the mills - given it's ability to allow migratory fish to pass through it unharmed. This is a major issue in some smaller rivers here.

And there are low head Francis systems I have read about, but I am worried that this would require major civil works around the site for new pipe channels, etc. which could affect the aesthetics of the area, etc. Also, they may be too expensive.

I have studied the Portuguese renewable energy tariff, and in terms of hydro it could be attractive for small systems (under 4kw).

So these are the issues. Would you be able to help?

As I mentioned to Lauha Fried today, I believe that there is enormous potential for EU / regional funding for a more profound study and pilot projects in this area. Indeed, it is the wider area - in 10 days I am meeting a group from Vigo university (Spain, Galicia) to view a mill project they have. And they too have asked about power generation potential). (Galicia is also full of these old mills).
I have met with a professor from Portugal's largest civil engineering faculty, FEUP ( and he has indicated that his department of hydraulics would be keen to get involved.
I can also be certain that local municipalities and related NGOs would be interested.

Thus we have all the makings of an interesting funding proposal for a serious piece of study to breath life back into the moribund mills of this region.

It would be great if ESHA would be interested to participate.


Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Check dams

It's been raining for days on end. But in a kind of divine, falling from above, gently way. And it's warm(ish) outside. "what fine weather", i declare in bastardised Portuguese to the lady in the fish shop. "Ha" she scowls, "it hasn't stopped for weeks. Much worse than usual. Nothing dries properly". OK, she's not wrong there, but hey "warmer now before is then, not is?" (is probably what she heard), and nodding she agrees, giving me a frowning smile that says "poor fool". I am used to this linguistic self abuse, it doesn't seem to dent their willingness to engage, and listen to my mistakes, encouragingly.

So there I am lying in bed telling myself that today is the start of a whole new take on this speaking in toungues affair, when, ahoy: a distraction. It's cloudy and raining. Wow. Something really important other than looking at that really boring language book. Rain. But really - it's pouring and our land is covered in holes. Water is pouring away and we need to be keeping it in place.

Here's how it works: our land is a set of terrace carved out of a fairly steep hill, way back in the days when vast amount of human labour could be extorted for a bag of salt, a huge quantity of stone was brought in to create level terraces - facing the sun. Actually, I haven't a clue how they made those terraces, but they just long to tell you "I am a wall holding up a hill. I am a shit load of work. Don't even think about it". "punk". Humbled thus on a daily basis, I enjoy the fact that they are there, and done already. But alas, some of them were put together in haste, with really small rocks with some quite sloppy earth paste, and eventually they fall apart (bit like us really). It's not like major 'quake damage we're talking about here, take a chill. But there is the odd slippage, where terrace upper slowly becomes part of lower.

Paulo had a point a wee while ago "make a damn" he would say together with another 25 bits of advice and ideas, most of which were lost on me. After a while it has dawned: either I spend forever rebuilding walls with myself as the slave in this labour racket. Or I build a damn above the hole, and stop water, earth and other goodies that need to stay high, from coming low.

Happy for a distraction on this fine dreachy day (anything but more verbs) I decide it's time to go and "observe" the land. Observing is another favourite permaculture nut pastime, we are told. Yes, observe you must, says Paulo in his Yodaesque cackle. Listen to the land you should. Yeh right. it's raining, it's winter and there's a bit of wind around. Waddya want? Eventually, through the cracks in the cynisism I seem to have preprogrammed with at birth, I see a chink of reason in it.

Back to the holes. I don't actually 'observe' anything happening. Like water flooding over the breach in the terrace. Neh. Nor essential minerals flooding away from our juicy land. But I gather stakes and sticks nonetheless and start sticking them in the ground, a foot or so apart. Nice 'n' deep now laddy.

Then i find a long 'un and weave it horizontal to these stakes and then another and another. Soon we have a rather pleasing bit of plattage coming along. It's mildy satisfying, so I do more. Soon it's absorbing, and then wholly therapeutic. This is no worries at all. I should observe more. I think of the Portuguese word for stick. It is pau. Kira had it for one of her homework games. So I've learned my word for the day too. This was getting better and better.

I look back on the terrace. It's only about eight foot wide, but about as long as a bus. Being south facing it's ready to bake in the forthcoming months of dry weather, unless one is fooled into complacency by the current bogginess.

So this damming thing makes sense. Keep the water high for as long as possible, Paulo will chant merrily for hours. He has a point and I am finally ready to take up this mantra. It is actually just really obvious, and that is the pleasant thing about this permaculture religeon (I mean approach, of course): it's mostly common sense. Get it level so water can't flow downhill so quickly. Further, it occured, if I built up a small mound right along the edge of the terrace, of sticks and earth and stuff, then plant it with things that grow fast, then we have shade, more moisture is captured, less water evaporates in zone of hot, more stuff grows, so more shade, more fruits too. Nice.

Now I want to put check damns everywhere. I have started to run out of paus though, need to cut some more somewhere. Now I need to go and figure out when and how you plant, and what to plant. Uh oh. Master Paulo, help! I am ready to concentrate...

Friday, 23 January 2009

Shelters made from the earth below your feet

Cal Earth shelters look like the business. All you need is some earth. Sandy wasteland earth will do. And some bags. Pile them up in a concentric circle, making holes for door and windows as you go, and boom - you have a home. well, a shelter.

Originally desiged by architect and author, Nader Khalili, of Iranian descent I think, but California based for decades. Their website has some amazing images which say it all.

And these folks have pasted a film of throwing them up in Nepal.

Paulo, who sent this link, has suggested lime instead of cement. For sure. If you plaster the outside in sand and cement it will compromise the breathability of the indoor space, causing damp and mold.

So all we need is a couple of rolls of these bags. And some earth. Some windows and doors I suppose are other necessities. We should build these onto a terrace somewhere. (Monica, can we?)

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Echoes of watermills

Time to head south: Viana do Castelo, quite a nice Port town nestled between the sea and the mouth of the river Lima. I wanted to dig through an old register of watermills in Monção county, where we live. For some reason it’s held there, and bizarrely, nobody in Monção’s council has any idea how many watermills lie within their reach, how many are functional nor what potential exists for their rehabilitation

Actually, this is what I am supposed to be doing my thesis on – to complete my masters in something to do with environment and energy studies (a completion that I could have submitted 1 year ago, but have dragged out, changed twice, dithered plenty until finally resolving to focus on something related to our new home in the river valleys of Northern Portugal.

We have a little mill on our property too, so there’s some self-interest going on there. But what I really want to know is can these old mills feasibly be adapted into mini hydroelectric generators ? And what other enticing service could they deliver if the river’s energy could be borrowed again: a potters wheel comes to mind, a sharpening stone for your axe, a sanding block, a press for local olives?

They were originally built – in serious numbers – to grind corn and grain, to cut wood or to thrash some kind of plant into linen (I heard about this one only recently). In other words, a shortcut for really boring manual labour.

Using the energy embodied in falling water has been used for centuries, millennia in fact. The earliest record of people doing clever things with water is from Sumerian times (a mega early civilisation between the 6th and 4th millennium BC). It is said that they were the first people to practice year round agriculture (from around 5300 BC – really quite a long time ago). Indeed it was this ability to grow serious amounts of food that meant they could stay in one place, build towns and ‘cities’ and develop some kind of complex society – divisions of labour, a system of organisation, record keeping, writing, laws and all the rest. Sounds amazing, wish I could visit.

Although there isn’t actually any proof they ground corn, it is thought they used a water mill of some kind to raise water, probably for irrigation. A few thousand years later the Greeks must have discovered a discarded Sumerian design pad and they took it to the next level: the water mill. Enthused by this new invention one of their sponsored poets of the time, known as the Antipater of Thessalonica dispatched some inspired counsel:

"Hold back your hand from the mill, you grinding girls; even if the cockcrow heralds the dawn, sleep on. For Demeter has imposed the labours of your hands on the nymphs, who leaping down upon the topmost part of the wheel, rotate its axle; with encircling cogs, it turns the hollow weight of the Nisyrian millstones. If we learn to feast toil-free on the fruits of the earth, we taste again the golden age.”

This guy really was inspired, or maybe already on a higher plane. Sleep on you grinding girls. Use your minds and labour less, lie about and think, philosophise, play. “The Golden Age”. If this is when you are no longer forced to break your back working the land, while machines magic it all for you, then our modern age is golden indeed.

I thought about this and realise that there are fundamental differences in how far we have taken our golden age thing. The Antipater observed the virtually harmless energy capture of falling water – tapping into the world’s hydrological cycle.

Today, in contrast, we extract prehistoric solar energy in the form of oil and gas, from deep underground, and burn it to turn everything, to drive our computers and move our carriages even to make the food we eat – forget about grindstones.

Is our age more golden? This depends on your definition of golden. It has surely enabled us to industrialise our planet, for our population to soar, famines and plagues to be averted, armies to build fiercer weapons that ever before and to build machines that think. But unlike the benign impact of a water mill – burning all that ancient sunlight embodied in fossil fuels is creating an environmental disaster which could extinguish almost all life on earth. Read Mark Lynas’s Six Degrees if you feel inclined to know how.
Hardly benign, far from golden.

Here in the Northern Green of Portugal lies a land of rivers and vineyards, dotted with watermills at every river bend. Today, however, you will find no spinning wheel or grinding cogs but plenty of brambles and weeds. The mills lie in ruins. Even getting to them is hard work, for which you need a machete and dragon skin gloves.

How could this be? what a waste I declared to anyone that would listen. Surely they could be of some use these days. I wanted to know how many still exist around this area. After a fair bit of digging and confused conversations in my cringeworthy Portuguese I found the answer – in the regional office of environment and water resources an hour or so away. There I found an old office, staffed mainly by people from another era, sitting around desks and cupboards from the 30s, surprisingly free of the usual computerised networks and blinking screens. I somehow explained my venture and then a lady appeared with a pile of old folders covered in dust – the cadastra – an archive of old records of where the mills exist in Monção, their location names of the owners, and even how many grindstones are registered in each mill. Amazing – and nobody’s looked at them for years, they said. “we thought about creating a digital record” they said “but it never happened”.

No worries. They are perfect like this; museum pieces. Each record comes in two parts: one written by hand – in careful and sometimes beautiful text. The other a typed copy. They date from 1941 to 1945, when somehow Portugal seemed to have avoided the miserable distractions of world wars.

So yesterday was my appointed time to record them. I hadn’t planned for the snowy conditions and of course it was another un-heated building. But carpeted and made of thick stone so not too bad. The power was out in the little study cell I was shown to, but I had enough battery power to keep me going for a while. So I was left alone with these pages of antiquity. Soon enough I discovered that each page had seemingly shrivelled over time to incredible thinness, as if a mere touch would turn them to dust. This also meant that each folder held hundreds upon hundreds of entries. This was going to be a long haul. Hour after hour I turned page after page, finding a rhythm typing in the records, as you can walking an endless hill or chopping logs. Each page a new entry I could copy down. I felt like a professor from an Indiana Jones film, everything around me seemed draped in sepia. Even the names of mill-owners that I dutifully recorded, occasionally one person owned two or three places – the rich guys! Or the Golçalves family, who owned half the mills in a village.

I became entranced by these names. Like a school roll call, Only more exotic, a ships’ crew from a Latin American adventure: Redolfo Alves, Germano José de Almeida, Dr Antonio de Cunha Meneses, Baltazar Rodrigues Chaves. Each page heralded a new character, a dashing hero or lady shrouded in mystery.

Like everywhere, most names seem to have been chosen from a fairly limited, often biblical hat. José, Manuel and António were regulars. Sitting opposite them on the girls’ bench one could find plenty Maria, Rita and Rosas.

But now and again my trance would be enlightened by someone special. Joana Rita Bravo Pereira do Lago de Eça grabbed my attention: The force is strong with this one, I mused. Lago de eça… eço is echo. Lago is lake. So eça could be the feminine echo. Joana’s echo? Joana of the echoing lake … What a name! (was she the child of a complex love triangle involving trapeze artists and musketeers? or did her ancestors claim another name from each foe they vanquished?). What became of her? Where are her descendents now? It was as if by opening the dusty volumes a bit of her echoed past me into another time.

They became my compadres, they occupied my addled mind, projecting images of life in the early 20th century . Gaspar de Sousa I imagine hunchbacked under his sacks of corn, struggling against his rural toils; Baltazar Gonçalves the boistrous mayor; Clementine e Antonio Domingues orphaned siblings, survivors from needless killings perpetrated by departing Napoleonic troops; Carmelinda de Jesus, a warm and honeyed lovely living in her own spirit world.

By closing time I had only got through half the register – around 400 mills. I still can’t believe how many. This is smallish district we’re talking about, less than 20,000 people, and only two main rivers. Yet it seems people built mills on every tiny stream – how resourceful! How inspired.

As I drove home in the frozen twilight I look forward to the next stage of my enquiry: visiting some of these mills, or rather their owners, searching in the living faces for stories of their ancestors, those that passed by my war-time register. And to look upon the ruins of their mills that once brought them a little income, or perhaps a moment of wonder as they imagined echoes of ancient water-nymphs, full of mischief, still falling among the spinning wheels, gracing them with their boundless energy.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Pre Christmas Nikita Gig

Bit late for a pre-Christmas post about anything really. There I was all inspired by Sarah's flowing stories on her blog that i realised how daft it is to sit back and think for too long about what happened.

So what happened was the end of Nikita's autumn term and as pretty much the solo drummer in the school, he has joined THE band. So they had to practice like crazy and get a couple of songs lined up. As the band transport slave I secured a sweet spot up front at the gig...

This is a middle school - along the lines of the French set up: 2 years of this pergutory between primary and secondary school. Can't really see the point, but he seems to get on OK. It's yet another soulless set of concrete blocks piled up alongside each other. Why is this the most used design for schools everywhere? Every heard of an inspiring building people ?

Back to the concert. First up was the eight year singing along in unenthusiastic fashing to some French pop song. The venue was the school gym, so the music was bouncing all over the walls generating a cacophany of chaos by the time the soundwaves bounced back to your head.

Next up - the next year up, or those learning Spanish or something. Slightly better, bit more gusto though it was going to take a lot to get the crowd behind them. Nikita, and his guitarist friend, Ricardo, burst in with some drum and geetar solos which sounded a bit all over the place, but the crowd went wild. A cheer soars across the stands. This was better.

The bagpipes were next. the Galician version, the Gaita i think they call them. Played by a girl with long messy dark hair, and thoughfull, almost mournfull expression. In contrast to the previous hullabaloo these pipes offered sanctuary in a mellow celtic, oddly familiar way.

Finally Nikita's big moment: their rendition of Joan Osborne's 'one of us'. Their singer, another girl brave enough to stand up in front of the jittery crowd, over a hundred of them. Kira (who'd bailed school to accompany me) looked at me when she launched out, and winced. Bit off key, but she pulled it off later on and got the whole grown doing mexican waves and generally getting into it. Nikita didn't get too many drum roll chances, but he looked pretty cool anyway, bit like Enrique Iglesias with a beany pulled low and long sleeved t-shirt and all that.

That's it, the band are launched. I tried to pursuade them later to integrate the Gaita into some modern trad music thing. Or just go trad and they'd get tonnes of gigs on the Galician side as the Youth Celtic Thing.

Next day: Early door start to Porto - London - Edinburgh. Where we awaited the arrival of Monica from her homeland trek.