Renewable Energy Allies
By Dialogo July 01, 2013
Airmen and academics from El Salvador and the United States recently completed a state-of-the-art hybrid power station at a Salvadoran Military base that could serve as a model in the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. The station includes solar panels, rechargeable batteries and a biomass gasifier that transforms coconut shells into synfuel to serve as a combustion fuel source for an electric generator. The system is the first of its kind to be installed at a Salvadoran Military base.
The system provides power to the dining facility of the 2nd Air Brigade of the Salvadoran Air Force at Comalapa in La Paz department.
Mark Oetken, the Army science advisor for U.S Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), explained that the system is designed to either be incorporated into the electric grid or used as an independent mobile system.
“If the renewable energy system generates more power than the dining facility needs, the excess power can be provided to the electrical grid for general use,” Oetken told Diálogo.
The initiative was led by SOUTHCOM and executed by Florida International University, the United States Military Academy at West Point and the State University of New York at Cobleskill in conjunction with the Salvadoran 2nd Air Brigade and Don Bosco University of El Salvador.
Colonel Douglas Tochez, commander of the 2nd Air Brigade, said that the Salvadoran Air Force plans to use the innovative equipment to limit pollution and reap financial benefits.
“The cost of basic services that we have is very high,” Col. Tochez told Diálogo. “We would like to see how we can also save on resources, especially on this matter, the economic issue, to alleviate our assigned budget.”
The system produces up to 80 kilowatt-hours (kwh) of power per day under ideal conditions. When the coconut shells are burned, the biomass gasifier produces 45 kwh of power per day, and with full sun the solar panels generate another 35 kwh of power per day. That’s enough to power 36 typical homes in El Salvador, according to 2012 figures from the World Bank.
The project, according to Oetken, is unique because it combines renewable energy, either from the use of solar energy, batteries or the biomass gasifier. “The system can provide power to the installation as well as a rapid response to power outages to the installation’s dining facility. It also provides additional power capable of feeding the grid, if required, thus reducing the cost of energy for the base,” he said.
Anselmo Valdizón, engineer and director of the Energy Research Institute at Don Bosco University, agrees with Oetken. “Not only can we count on the grid, the biodiesel power plant, and the photovoltaic systems, but we also can count on the combination of all energy sources,” Valdizón said. “I believe this system is very interesting because not only is it all about technology, but three technologies converging into one system.”
The hybrid system helps to reduce fuel consumption because it exploits the available coconut shell biomass, which if not utilized by the gasifier, returns to the environment as organic waste, Valdizón said. He added that, from the military viewpoint, the system serves as a survival contingency backup. It can also be used during emergencies, such as natural disasters or if there is a shortage of fossil fuel, such as carbon, petroleum and natural gas.
First of its Kind
The hybrid system installed at the 2nd Air Brigade is a duplicate of one installed at West Point that U.S. cadets and professors use for educational purposes.
“This is one of the reasons the cadets are part of the team,” Oetken said. “They are very familiar with the scientific principles of how the biomass gasifier that provides synfuel for the generator works.” The experience from El Salvador will serve the cadets as a data collection point.
The 2nd Air Brigade has other renewal energy initiatives, including $100,000 worth of lights with photovoltaic capability donated by SOUTHCOM in 2010. They help illuminate perimeter areas of the base.
In October 2012, pilots, educators, students and government officials from El Salvador and the United States visited the 2nd Air Brigade to assemble and install the unit. They also trained base personnel to use and maintain the system.
Professors and students from Don Bosco University initially attended as observers, but they have become more involved in the project. The vice-chancellor of Don Bosco’s Science & Technology Department, Reina de Alvarado, said in February 2013 that the academic institution is looking to support maintenance schedules, training programs, and the establishment of academic relationships with U.S. institutions.
“The teamwork displayed on this project offers us the opportunity to generate broader knowledge, it gives us more opportunities for our students, and through the Energy Research Institute, not only contributes to research, but also to strengthen ourselves,” de Alvarado said. “We see the importance of developing strong alliances with U.S. universities.”
For Oetken, the project has surpassed its goals. “Even though I think this project was cool, I believe the best potential is the long-term relationship that we are able to establish,” he said.