Friday, October 2, 2009

Building wind turbines out of bicycle parts: Some inspiration out of Africa

George Will had another terrible article in yesterday’s Washington Post that repeated the myth that there’s been global cooling since 1998. Apparently Will hasn’t read my post on the subject.

But Will’s worst sin isn’t his recycling of repeatedly-debunked lies about global warming science – it’s this passage right here:

The U.S. goal is an 80 percent reduction by 2050. But Steven Hayward of the American Enterprise Institute says that would require reducing greenhouse gas emissions to the 1910 level. On a per capita basis, it would mean emissions approximately equal to those in 1875.

That will not happen. So, we are doomed. So, why try?

Reminds me of Homer Simpson saying "Kids, you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is, never try." Conservatism truly is, by definition, a failure of imagination.

Contrast George Will’s defeatist, anti-entrepreneurial spirit with this amazing story out of one of the poorest countries in Africa:

Self-taught William Kamkwamba has been feted by climate change campaigners like Al Gore and business leaders the world over.

His against-all-odds achievements are all the more remarkable considering he was forced to quit school aged 14 because his family could no longer afford the $80-a-year (£50) fees.

When he returned to his parents' small plot of farmland in the central Malawian village of Masitala, his future seemed limited.

But this was not another tale of African potential thwarted by poverty.

The teenager had a dream of bringing electricity and running water to his village.

Many, including my mother, thought I was going crazy - people thought I was smoking marijuana.

And he was not prepared to wait for politicians or aid groups to do it for him.

The need for action was even greater in 2002 following one of Malawi's worst droughts, which killed thousands of people and left his family on the brink of starvation.

Unable to attend school, he kept up his education by using a local library.

Fascinated by science, his life changed one day when he picked up a tattered textbook and saw a picture of a windmill.

Mr Kamkwamba told the BBC News website: "I was very interested when I saw the windmill could make electricity and pump water.

"I thought: 'That could be a defence against hunger. Maybe I should build one for myself'."

When not helping his family farm maize, he plugged away at his prototype, working by the light of a paraffin lamp in the evenings.

But his ingenious project met blank looks in his community of about 200 people.

"Many, including my mother, thought I was going crazy," he recalls. "They had never seen a windmill before."

Neighbours were further perplexed at the youngster spending so much time scouring rubbish tips.

William Kamkwamba's achievements with wind energy show what one person, with an inspired idea, can do to tackle the crisis we face.

"People thought I was smoking marijuana," he said. "So I told them I was only making something for juju [magic].' Then they said: 'Ah, I see.'"

Mr Kamkwamba, who is now 22 years old, knocked together a turbine from spare bicycle parts, a tractor fan blade and an old shock absorber, and fashioned blades from plastic pipes, flattened by being held over a fire.

"I got a few electric shocks climbing that [windmill]," says Mr Kamkwamba, ruefully recalling his months of painstaking work.

The finished product - a 5-m (16-ft) tall blue-gum-tree wood tower, swaying in the breeze over Masitala - seemed little more than a quixotic tinkerer's folly.

But his neighbours' mirth turned to amazement when Mr Kamkwamba scrambled up the windmill and hooked a car light bulb to the turbine.

As the blades began to spin in the breeze, the bulb flickered to life and a crowd of astonished onlookers went wild.

Soon the whiz kid's 12-watt wonder was pumping power into his family's mud brick compound.

Out went the paraffin lanterns and in came light bulbs and a circuit breaker, made from nails and magnets off an old stereo speaker, and a light switch cobbled together from bicycle spokes and flip-flop rubber.

Before long, locals were queuing up to charge their mobile phones.

Mr Kamkwamba's story was sent hurtling through the blogosphere when a reporter from the Daily Times newspaper in Blantyre wrote an article about him in November 2006.

Meanwhile, he installed a solar-powered mechanical pump, donated by well-wishers, above a borehole, adding water storage tanks and bringing the first potable water source to the entire region around his village.

He upgraded his original windmill to 48-volts and anchored it in concrete after its wooden base was chewed away by termites.

Then he built a new windmill, dubbed the Green Machine, which turned a water pump to irrigate his family's field.

Before long, visitors were traipsing from miles around to gawp at the boy prodigy's magetsi a mphepo - "electric wind".

While George Will asks, “Why try?” 22-year-old William Kamkwamba asked “Why not?” Opponents of climate legislation say the costs will be too high, the technology isn’t here, that we can’t do it. The GOP isn’t just the party of “NO” – they’re the party of “CAN’T.”

But Kamkwamba's story shows us what happens when we don’t limit our imagination of what’s possible by what our current experience tells us. We don’t need juju to solve the climate crisis – just a little guts, youthful creativity, and silence from defeatists like George Will. In the words of our great President…


How is Peyton Manning Like Global Warming?

Visualizing the "costs" of cap-and-trade

Obama speaks on global warming: What you need to know to be certain that global warming is real

Global warming goes on monkey trial!


  1. If you want to see a video of William Kamkwamba speaking you can go here: in general is a really cool place to watch videos of innovators and interesting ideas.

  2. Thanks for the link. TED has some good stuff which I have not managed to look at yet.

  3. Now, with nine more years of buildup, and the beginnings (possibly) of some quite disturbing canary in a coal mine type signs, George Will has finally managed to leap forward from the throes of complete science denial, to the more rigidly far right and reactionary positions of nine years past.

    And that is, "the issue needs more study."

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