To Afghanistan, with wind

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An isolated Afghanistan valley is home to that country’s first wind farm, courtesy of a team of Timaru engineers

Tony Woods, of the sustainable development firm Empower, and his team spent a year in the Panjshir valley, pulling apart American-made turbines, hauling them up steep, dizzying, gravel roads, then putting them back together above the snow line.

Now government offices in the valley – a tourist destination in the 1970s that is now dotted with tanks and landmines – are powered by a 17kW, 10-turbine wind farm designed and installed by New Zealanders.

Mr Woods believes small, renewable energy generation is the only chance for many of Afghanistan’s isolated communities to get electricity. The country has no central electricity grid, and if it did, there is no means to power it.

He would like to build more small, renewable energy projects in New Zealand, but said the market structure made it difficult for many people to afford the installation costs because it did not give a fair price to people who sold surplus electricity to the national grid.

The Panjshir valley wind farm was paid for by the regional government there, after the Asian Development Bank paid Empower to scope the area for possible wind farm sites. Land mines were cleared from the site before building.

Because of their height, many of the best spots for wind power were also look-outs during times of fighting, making them risky areas for mines.

“You don’t really want to go wandering over the hillsides like you would in New Zealand,” said Mr Woods.

The engineer said the only time he was frightened in Afghanistan was when he had to climb to the top of turbines in the wind, before ropes were secured to balance him.

The Empower team – who were helped with their work by Timaru-based Smart Energy – felt safe from being attacked because the local community strongly supported the wind farm.

“[Communities] really control the security in their areas. We had very open and frank discussions with the local community,” he said. “That really takes care of security by itself.”

Locals claim Panjshir is the only place in Afghanistan never conquered by Russia or the Taleban, despite at least nine attempts.

Roads to the wind farm site were sometimes impassable in winter, and work stopped for months because of snow and ice.

Mr Woods said the hardest part was the dismantling and hauling of the wind farm parts.

“We enjoy a challenge, but that was an effort, it really was.”

Most people in Afghanistan do not have electricity, and those who do mostly rely on diesel generators, many installed by aid agencies as a quick and easy way to power buildings. But as the cost of diesel has risen, Mr Woods said many communities could not afford the diesel.

The wind farm would cost less to maintain than running a diesel generator and would keep working in winter, when trucks carrying diesel could not get to the community.

An Afghani company formed by Empower and staffed by 15, mostly Afghani, engineers will maintain the turbines.

Empower’s next task is taking solar electricity to the region.

Mr Woods plans to install solar electricity panels at 18 district health clinics, an orphanage and a women’s refuge, as well as four neighbouring villages near the Pakistan border.

The wind farm was officially opened last month.

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