Saturday afternoon trip to the airstrip

Who can help me with information on inexpensive ways to generate electricity for a household?  If you know something about this or can point me to a good resource, please comment!  Read on to hear why…

In praying about next steps recently, I sensed God leading me to put more effort into connecting with people on the outskirts of our town who have ties to villages.  I felt I wasn’t supposed to take on any new projects (water filters, solar dehydrators, and the like) until I had better relationships with people in need and could more directly respond to needs they wanted met.

On that premise, late this afternoon I headed out to a community about a half hour walk from our house, built on an old airstrip.  The community came to be about three years ago when a number of village families were invited to take small parcels of land and build houses on them.  They did so, constructing one-room houses out of wood and sheets of corrugated tin.  These humble dwellings line either side of what was once a working airstrip in our town, now a gravel runway with weeds poking through it.

The airstrip community enjoys a beautiful view

The airstrip community is an intriguing place, strategically.  Its families come from a number of indigenous villages and speak native dialects.  We (and many missionaries) have found displaced people in difficult circumstances to often be more open to the gospel.  The community is poor, meaning community development has an opportunity to make a more significant impact there than in other places.

I went out with no plan other than to try and connect with people.  I figured I’d let them know that God brought me to the region to come to know Jesus better alongside others and to spread the love of Jesus in any way I can.  Then I’d just see what happened.  Arriving at the airstrip, I saw a couple of guys loading wood into the back of a truck at one of the first houses, so I figured I’d see if I could lend them a hand.  As I got closer and called out a greeting, I recognized both of them as men I’d met last summer when GFM was doing some English classes up there.  (Carl and Lisa, students in the 2008-09 Mission Training School, were the first ones to begin building relationships in the airstrip community, which opened the door for our further involvement.)  The two men recognized me, as well.

We started talking, and in the first five minutes one of the guys asked if I know how to generate electricity for a home.  The families at the airstrip had been stealing electricity from some nearby lines, but they got cut off and fined and are now without electricity.  He explained several ideas he’d heard of involving windmills, solar panels, and car batteries.  I don’t know how to generate electricity for a home, but I told him I would look into it if they would help me make something once I found a design.  He readily agreed, saying to let him know what I found and then he would get people in the community together to chip in money for the project and help work on it.

After a half-hour conversation, he offered me a ride back to town.  I accepted, and on the way back we got into spiritual matters.  I mostly just asked questions and let him talk this time around.  He belongs to a sect based out of Guadalajara called Luz del Mundo.

So now I need some good ideas for inexpensive home power generation!  Does anyone know of anything?  We always say that our supporters back home are just as much a part of the team as we are, we’re just field staff, so here’s a bit of a unique way to participate in the work down here!  I’m looking forward to hearing from some of you.

P.S. I don’t have a photo of the airstrip community, but are there any GFMers reading this who have one they could pass along to me?  If so, I’ll add it to this post.  Update: Thanks to Nick and Sarah for providing the above photo.

Update 05 June ’09: Read about my following trip to the airstrip here.

18 thoughts on “Saturday afternoon trip to the airstrip

  1. Bailey

    Hey Chris! For this, and many of your other projects (water filters/solar dehydrators/etc.), I recommend looking for some engineering students who need to do a thesis project. They’ll do the work for free and probably even bring their own materials. Plus, good engineering schools are now stressing sustainable development projects that focus on inexpensive, local materials when constructing their projects. This way, you’ll get a sustainable, affordable model, and it will be done by someone who actually knows what their doing. My guess is all you’d have to do is sign off on their work and give them a grade. Send me an e-mail and I’ll see if I can get you in touch with some of the development and engineering professors and students at my school!

  2. chris Post author

    Bailey, sounds like a good idea, thanks! I wonder if there are any students looking to do something this summer, or if it wouldn’t be until the fall semester starts?

    Andrew, that’s a great resource. Thanks a lot for pointing it out!

  3. Danielle Hickle

    Hey Chris! My fiance was an electrical engineer and he might know some people or have some leads. We are both really excited for the ministry there and you are all in our prayers!

  4. George McClure

    Hola Cris

    Here in Baja there are a lot of remote homes and schools and most of them are on Solar Panels and car batteies. If you are just trying to give light, then use low wattage 12-volt bulbs that you can get at any auto parts store or junk yard. If you are trying to run electrical appliances, they will need an inverter. Inverters come in all sizes and cost. It would be most helpfull if I knew what you are trying to power and for how long each day. If you can send me that type of info, I’ll try to size a system and do some cost breakdown for you.

  5. Chris Post author

    Danielle, sounds good, thanks!

    George, thanks for the info, that’s very helpful. I know next to nothing about electrical stuff, so even basic info is very useful to me. I’ll try and get a better idea of what they want to do with electricity and let you know (and anyone else who that info would help).

    For everyone who is thinking about this with me, here are some qualifications for the project to keep in mind: The more participation from the community in making whatever gets made, the better. Something paid for by the community (and therefore inexpensive) is almost non-negotiable. And something made with materials easy to get a hold of down here is definitely preferred.

    Thanks for all the input so far, it’s been very helpful! I look forward to hearing anything else that anyone has to say.

  6. Mom

    Christopher, being from Kansas, what can I say??? Windmills. Our high school has been involved in a grant project this year…they were awarded the opportunity to put up a small wind turbine (a miniature of the ones used in wind farms) and have been generating electricity for the science room at school all year. I can put you in touch with Dan Whisler, the teacher who headed the project if you want.

  7. Jerry W

    This is something that my dad did for the family back in the late 1930. He took a auto generator and made a prop out of wood and a pulley with a belt to run the generator. Then put that on top of a tower with a tail to keep it into the wind to charge a 6V battery for lights in the house. The same can be done with 12V battery. I know that there has been a lot of improvement with other ways but this may work for short term while a better arrangement can be made.
    I see some of the suggestions are great.

  8. Chris Post author

    Hey Mom, that would be cool, do you have an email address or something for him you could email me?

    Jerry, that sounds like a fairly simple but effective solution. This raises a couple of questions I’ve been wondering:

    –In talking with the men of the airstrip community as well as in hearing from some of you, I have heard 12V batteries mentioned a few times. Just what can you run off a 12V battery? That’s a car battery, right?

    –Also, if you go the wind generation route, let’s say a some sort of windmill connected to a 12V battery, does anyone know how constant the wind needs to be? Because we get breezes here, but not too much strong wind, and there are a lot of days that are fairly still.

    Thanks for the input everyone!

  9. Chris Post author

    Solar Bozo, thanks for the tip. My buddy Chino and I recently built a solar dehydrator with a design we found on, and it definitely looked like a great mag/website with a wealth of information. Looking at it now, I see one more intriguing idea: microhydro electricity. I’m not sure if it’s a possibility in this case, but I’ll investigate.

    Thanks for pointing us to some great resources!

  10. C Wright

    I’ve used both wind and solar north of Fairbanks, Alaska. I made a 60 foot tower with pipe and guy wires. It was worthless. We didn’t have enough wind. So make sure of your wind source before investing in wind. Solar is great if you have the sun. You won’t get a lot of electricity unless you use a lot of panels. My best combination for running a few lights, tv and computer was to use a solar pannel golf cart battery, inverter and a small 1000 watt generator for back up. If you have access to a stream hydro would be fantastic. It just has to have a high enough water source to produce pressure.

  11. Chris Post author

    C Wright, your experience in Alaska is good information for us. I suspect we may not have enough wind here, either, then. We get quite a bit of sun here, especially during the dry season (Nov-Apr). If we need too many solar panels, that’s where solar power might get cost prohibitive. I also don’t know how easy it is to buy solar cells down here. Hydroelectricity is probably a bit of a long shot, but I’ll look into it.

    So does anyone know of any other possible ways to generate electricity besides the three main ones we’ve mentioned: wind, sun, and water?

    Tim, thanks a lot!

  12. J. Rucker

    My friend, J. Nuckolls showed me this site and asked if I could help. I’m an electrical engineer with ExxonMobil. I’ll give you my perspective from both a long and short-term approach.

    Short Term:
    For smaller communities that are trying to establish electrical infrastructure, renewable or portable options are the best options, for a number of reasons. There are several renewalbe sources of power that are employed at various scales and should be evaluated based on a variety of factors. You’ll need to consider the type of electrical loads that you need to supply (AC or DC), the electrical load of the community (peak and average kilowatt hour load), the voltage level needed, maintenance cost, availability of the power generating resource, … etc. At ExxonMobil, our temporary facilities are powered by faily sizeable portable, diesel generators. Fuel and rental costs can be high, and should only be considered for temporary and/or back-up power.

    Given that the community does not have sustained winds the majority of the year, I would recommend solar or geo-thermal power generation. The initial cost of these options is relatively high and they don’t pay out on a large scale, but they are probably your best option, especially given the availability of the sun (I don’t know much about geo-thermal power production). Depending on the average power load that you’re expecting, the solar installation can be fairly large. Are you considering a central power generation facility and branching off to individual homes or individual units for each home? A centeral utility will be more cost effective for the community and will help with the transition to power from the utility later on down the road. C Wright, had a good suggestion for the model of a reliable and cost effective energy solution for a community. This model can be easily scalled to fit your specific situation. For a variable renewable energy source (e.g. wind, solar) 12-volt car batteries and inverters are commonly used to supply consistent, reliable power for electronics and appliances.

    Long Term:
    Electricity can be generated any number of ways. Typically, your large power producers will use Co-gen plants (natural gas turbines coupled with boilers and steam turbine generators), nuclear power, coal fired power plants (steam turbine generators), and hydro electric plants. These are the most attractive from a cost per kilowatt-hour(kWhr) perspective, but due to their size, they are highly impractical for small communities and are largely owned and operated by major utility producers. Connecting to a utility is probably the best plan long term, as the community the electrical load demand, and the ability of the people to pay for an electric bill increases. Your infrastructure plan should include connecting to a utility in the future.

    I hope I helped.



  13. Chris Post author

    Justin, thanks a lot for your input! I’m running around Mexico City right now, so I’ll have to digest things better once I’m back home and settled, but I at least wanted to let you know I had seen your comment. I really appreciate you taking the time to give your perspective on this!

  14. Chris Post author

    Hey Justin, I had time to pick through your comment more carefully now, and yes, it helped! I’m not sure whether we’ll be trying to do something on the community scale that will branch off to each house or whether it would just be an individual solution for individual homes. That will depend on the interest level of the community as a whole, which remains to be seen.

    In the long run, they do have power lines that run right by their community, so someday it’s very possible they’ll hook into them (legally, this time). The reason they haven’t yet is simply that it’s a poor community and they don’t want to pay the fees. Since they mentioned the possibility of generating their own power, I thought it would be cool to see if something could work. Not too many people around here are willing to think very far outside the box when solving their problems, so I was encouraged by this line of thinking.

    They also mentioned a while back that it’s possible they’ll have to move all their houses at some point. So I think any solution we’re looking for should be reasonable simple, inexpensive, and hopefully portable.

    Thanks again to everyone who commented; I appreciate it a lot! I’m now sifting through all the info trying to get a better sense of direction. I hope to visit the airstrip tomorrow evening to check in and gather some more information. I’ll keep everyone posted with any new info that comes along.

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