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September 11th, 2014

WindAid project in Peru

Antony Vaquero-Stainer shares his one month experience of travelling in Peru while volunteering in the rewarding WindAid project.

Since visiting Peru as a teenager, I have been keen to return, so when the opportunity to get involved in an ongoing renewal energy project came up, I could not wait to get my backpack out again! WindAid is a project which aims to combat this by providing wind turbines to remote communities, to provide off grid electricity. Approximately six million people in Peru do not have access to electricity, an issue which fortunately we have not had experience of.

I was based in Trujillo on the north coast of Peru in a house with the ten other volunteers and permanent workers. The first day was spent being given presentations on the project, and visiting the centre of the city. It is a typical South American city, very vibrant and dense with people and traffic. The main square is very pretty with old architecture and statues surrounded by flowers and of course tourists! We then visited the markets which sold typical Peruvian goods including alpaca clothing and hand crafted jewellery. One thing that struck me immediately was the vast change in wealth within a matter of streets - from the beautiful buildings and houses of the main square to the simple mud/brick homes a few blocks away, a definite eye opener.

Over the next days we were given more technical lectures on the functioning of a wind turbine and how we would be building them. Plus an introduction to the workshop, which was out in the Moche region, where we would be working. We were split into two groups of three volunteers, each group being supervised by a permanent worker, with the aim of constructing one turbine per group. The turbines were to be of modest size - 5.5’ blades producing 500W of power, easily suitable to provide power to a house in a small community.

During the first week we began construction of the blade, the iconic component which is designed mathematically such that the wind causes rotation in one direction. The main material for this is expanding foam, cast in a pre-designed mould. This was then wrapped with fibreglass and carbon fibre to increase mechanical strength without adding weight and finally encased in a composite resin to add durability.

During this week we were fortunate to be able to visit the Moche ruins, the 'Huaca del Sol y la Luna' (“Temple of the Sun and Moon”). These ancient temples have existed since the Moche people in AD 100 with many original carvings and burial chambers still there today. We were given a guided tour around (a good chance to practice some Spanish!) and learned about the history and culture of the Moche people, including human sacrifices as well as appreciating the fantastic views of the mountains and surrounding area afforded by the height of the temples. There was also museum with many old artefacts discovered at the site including beautifully decorated pots and weapons.

The first weekend was spent recovering from the busy week and a visit to the coastal town of Huanchaco. Here we were treated to delicious fresh fish meals and interesting markets to look round as well as the beach. Also good to see some local wildlife that you wouldn't normally expect to find on a beach such as pelicans and blue footed boobies.

In the second week we started the metal work for the main body of the turbine. For this I got the chance to use proper tools, courtesy of their more casual approach to health and safety, such as an arc welder which was great fun, quite scary at the beginning and a lot more difficult to use than I expected!

We were able to visit the ancient site of the city of Chan Chan, where the Chimú people lived. We saw a large ruined temple site that had similar carvings on the walls to the Moche ruins, which was built around a huge oasis and included several clever design features such as triangular cross-section walls with bamboo poles inside to protect against earthquakes.

The second weekend we went travelling into the mountains to the city of Huaraz, a 9 hour bus journey away. At an altitude of 10,000ft (3000m), the reduced air pressure was immediately apparent especially as our hostel was at the top of a large hill. If we thought Trujillo was a crazy Peruvian city then this was another level, all senses assaulted by the crowds of locals packed into the dense, sprawling streets where markets with skinned chickens and guinea pigs are hang up for sale, the sound of constant car horns and the pungent smells filling the air and the amazing views of the mountains surrounding us in every direction you looked. Certainly a sharp departure from the European cities we’re used to!

After a morning spent wandering round the city and getting our bearings, we headed off on a walk to a popular viewpoint on a cliff top high up above the city. A good chance to acclimatise for the treks to come. As we ascended we could appreciate the incredible surroundings with the madness of the city now gone, just the sight of it squeezed into the valley below us. At the top was a huge statue of a cross, a definite photo opportunity with such stunning views in all directions. We descended as darkness was falling to find a local procession going on, lots of people dressed in very ornate costumes dancing to a band playing behind with statues of religious figures being carried - similar to those in Spain. We then went for dinner in a local restaurant and back to the hostel to get some rest for the long day ahead of us.

A brutal 5am start saw three of us loaded into a minibus to begin the accent deep into the mountains where our trek for “Lago 69” (“Lake 69”) would begin. After 3 hours of very uncomfortable off terrain driving and a stop to a small mountainside restaurant for some much needed breakfast, we pulled over in an unlikely place where the guide pointed straight off the side of the path and said “you start there, you have 6 hours and we don’t wait!” After a short scrabble down the rocks,over a small river the valley opened out before us, towering ice capped mountains ahead and wild donkeys and goats roaming around. The aim was simple, to climb from the start at 12,000ft (3700m) altitude to the lake at 15,000ft (4600m) over 6 miles in 3 hours, but as the old saying goes this turned out to be ‘easier said than done’. At this altitude with no proper acclimatisation time, even walking on very gentle inclines became exhausting. The first section was mostly flat and did two things: allowed us to enjoy our surroundings while taking pictures and secondly lead us into a very false sense of security! The second section started to get much steeper and the terrain became more difficult, although the views behind us became ever more impressive, some of the best i’ve ever seen (which is saying a lot given my travel experience). All the while heading for the top of a waterfall where we first thought the lake was. Once we reached the top we discovered that this in fact wasn't the lake at all, but instead opened out onto another, very welcome flat valley where we could ease our now aching bodies. After joking about the ominous and tremendously high mountain at the end of the valley, we realised we in fact were going to have to climb it… The accent was viciously steep and by now the altitude was so exhausting we were reduced to a slow shuffle, concentrating only on putting one foot in front of the other and encouraging other hikers we met along the way, and having to stop every few yards. This was definitely the big test, Bear Grills once said that mountains are great levellers, and at this point we realised the full truth of this. During this last hour of accent the mountain was unrelenting, every corner we rounded mercilessly offered another, yet steeper way ahead with seemingly no end, a true test of both mental and physical strength.

When the path finally flattened out we rounded the final corner and the lake suddenly opened out in front of us, truly spectacular with its crystal blue water and ice-capped peaks all around. We couldn’t have asked for a better reward! We sat down exhausted by the water to fully appreciate its beauty while getting some much needed food in us. The decent was, as expected, much easier physically although hard on your knees by the end. The site of the bus still sitting there when we returned was very welcoming and we could finally rest after all we’d been through.

The next day we had a later start, but once again headed into the mountains for a trip to see some glaciers. It was here that a previous WindAid group had installed the world’s highest wind turbine! This trip was significantly shorter and the terrain easier, which allowed us to appreciate the beautiful glaciers which unfortunately are some of the fastest receding in the world thanks to global warming.

During the third week we built the rotor and stator for the turbine (the parts that actually generate the electricity) and finished off sanding, painting all the parts, and putting the all important WindAid stickers on. We then packed all the parts into big boxes and gathered all the tools we’d need for the instillation and loaded them into the 4x4. We were also taken out to experience the Peruvian nightlife by one of the locals in the team, a very difference experience to London clubbing with lots of salsa style dancing. On the weekend we went to Conache to do some sand boarding. We arrived to find an oasis with enormous sand dunes on one side. So we rented boards and headed up. It was great fun going down, although a lot of hard work to climb the very steep dunes!

On Sunday night it was time to head to Playa Blanca, our final destination for the instillation. We loaded up everything and set off for the bus station. We had a long but interesting ride - including putting the two huge turbine boxes on the back of a small motor taxi! We arrived in Playa Blanca on Monday morning and the poverty and remoteness was immediately apparent - we were in the middle of nowhere right on the edge of the coast with all the houses made from bamboo poles and mud. We were taken on a tour round the village and met the families we would be installing for, plus we got to see the brand new school which had been built. We walked up to it and were bombarded by hoards of young very excited children screaming “gringo’s gringo’s!” (foreigners, foreigners) and then proceeded to use us as a jungle gym! We went inside the school with them and played in their playground which was cute. We then went to set up everything where we would be sleeping - one large room with no floor in sleeping bags, and no toilet. In the afternoon I got to do some maintenance on a previously installed turbine, which involved some very typical Peruvian problem solving. To get up to the 23ft turbine we roped two bamboo ladders together end to end, strapped the whole lot to the pole and went up there with a spanner! A pretty scary experience, even the locals themselves were saying “gringo loco!” (“crazy foreigners!”). We made a fire on the beach in the evening and sat playing games with the children and chatting before heading for some much needed sleep before the instillation the next day.

The instillation began with us digging a deep hole for the foundation, before putting all the components together and mounting the whole turbine on a telegraph pole (used to add height). Cement was then made up and lots of the villagers came out to help hoist the whole structure up into the hole and lay the concrete down. We then spent the afternoon connecting up the electrics and wiring the whole house. This involved installing a controller to modulate the charging of the battery (where the energy from the turbine is stored) and connecting this to an inverter to provide an AC power supply which then fed the ring main we installed so they could have lights in all the rooms as well as plug in any normal appliances. We would have to wait until the next day for the ceremonial switching on. We then had dinner at their house - some typical ‘cerviche’ (fresh raw fish cured in lime) served with potatoes and rice.

The next day we all gathered with the locals by the turbine and lifted the brake and both the turbines started turning. It was exciting to see the last three weeks of hard work and technical challenges pay off! We went inside and sure enough the controller told us the battery was charging and we switched on the lights for the first time - our job here was done! In the afternoon the fishermen had offered to take us to see a scallop farm, and to go out in a boat to see the offshore wind turbine which a previous group had installed, but had stopped working. We got into the back of a pickup truck and were driven on a scenic ride along the coast to the scallop farm, which was large and impressive. We then went out on a small boat out to the turbine which was mounted on a very small guard boat. This was a big challenge since there was little space out on deck but we needed at least four of us to perform the maintenance, all the while the boat was rocking around quite a bit. We managed to replace the broken component and sure enough the turbine worked again, very satisfying!. We managed to see various interesting birds and some fish on the way back and watch the sun start to set over the horizon. Now back to our room to write our Spanish presentations!

On the final day the locals all gathered into the main area where we each gave a small presentation in Spanish on one aspect of the turbine, including maintenance and how to properly use the battery etc. We also did a raffle for which houses would receive turbines in the coming months. That evening we made the long journey back to Trujillo, exhausted but very proud of all that we had achieved and knowing how much we had benefited the lives of the local community.

For the final day in Trujillo the permanent staff cooked us all a farewell BBQ, and we spent the evening together at the house looking back at all our pictures and reminiscing about all the great times we’d had during our trip. On Saturday it was a sad farewell to everyone and time to leave it all behind, but with our memories of the trip of a lifetime always with us.

By Antony Vaquero-Stainer, son of Journey Latin America's Antonio Vaquero, Training & Development Manager.

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