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Student Engineers Launch Alternative Energy Project in Dominica

By Kevin Foley Article published January 26, 2005

The Caribbean island of Dominica is a land of 365 rivers — and expensive electricity. That irony bothered senior electrical engineering student Alvin Chan and his alternative energy mentor Gary Flomenhoft, a faculty member at the Gund Institute of Ecological Economics, and expert in solar and hydro energy.

“They have a river for every day of the year, but they had no micro-hydro that I knew of,” says Chan. Instead, islanders generally relied on expensive energy from a monopoly utility or their own polluting diesel generators. Chan and partner Adam Meil, another senior engineering student, wanted to change that by designing, funding and constructing a small micro-hydro installation that would demonstrate the technology’s potential to the energy-crunched island. (They later learned about two small water-power generators on the island, but the technology is little known on Dominica.)

Their project began last March, when Chan and Meil accompanied Flomenhoft and other students to the island’s Springfield Center for Environmental Protection, Research, and Education for a Community Development and Applied Economics-sponsored field alternative energy workshop. Students broke into teams and focused on different energy alternatives appropriate to the area. Chan took on micro-hydro, identifying an appropriate stream and taking the elevation and flow measurements necessary to choose an appropriate turbine and generator and calculate power output.

Meil and Chan established that an installation could generate 24 to 36 kilowatt hours of electricity a day, more than enough to supply a typical Dominican family’s needs, or make a meaningful cut in the nonprofit SCEPTRE facility’s utility bill. But they needed $6,000 to build it.

“We went into getting grants, looking at whatever we could do to fund this thing,” Chan says.

As he worked to select and source the necessary equipment, Chan made connections with other engineers at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse. The faculty adviser of the school's chapter of Engineers Without Borders, Professor James Hassett, quickly embraced the project. Eventually, the organization — as well as UVM, and SCEPTRE partner Clemson University — provided financial and technical support.

“I spent a lot of time on this, probably the majority of my time after all my classes,” Chan says. “I had to be communicating between three different countries [the hydropower equipment came from Bangalore, India], and a lot of different organizations.”

Chan’s work eventually resulted in another trip to Dominica starting Dec. 29, 2004 and continuing through Jan. 16 to install the student-designed system. Chan, Meil and a group of SUNY-ESF students and faculty from their Engineers Without Borders chapter, working in concert with a number of Dominican engineering students, constructed and began testing the generator installation. The group was able to show off the project to local officials and employees of the island’s electrical utility, but they had to return home before work was completely finished — the generator works, but hasn’t been sufficiently tested or broken in — so Chan, Meil and Flomenhoft will return to the island over spring break to mop up and start cranking out electricity.

“It was frustrating not to completely finish, but we came a long way,” Meil says. “It was really rewarding to be there, soaking up the culture and the place, and working with the local people. People on the island really cared about what was going on, and that was great.”