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The Unsung Heroes..

Maverick Kampung Engineers

takes on the challenge to Electrify the Rural Areas in
Sabah and Sarawak

Adrian Lasimbang, PACOS TRUST

Rural electrification through conventional methods such as grid connection and
diesel generators is either very costly, or - in the case of grid extensions – simply
not in the plans for the foreseeable future. Conventional methods result in
emissions that are harmful to human health and the environment. They add
carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, which traps sunlight and causes global
climate change. With the rise of fuel prices, diesel generators become an
economic burden on low-income families, eliminating the economic benefits of

It is a sad fact that remote rural communities have to pay more to enjoy diesel
and petrol-fueled electricity supply. The additional costs very often cover the
long distance transportation. Hence they pay twice if not three times or more the
actual market price for every liter to power generators, often for less than six
hours a day. Already burdened by poverty, paying such a high cost for energy is
like rubbing salt to their financial wound. Yet having electricity provides light at
the end of the tunnel to raise their standard of living. The big question is: what
are the alternatives?

One is by harnessing what has been freely available in the communities’ own
backyard: water power or in its technical term, hydropower.

Hydro power is the oldest form for technology to harness energy from natural
resources since the invention of the water wheel by humans. It uses simple but
practical form of spinning wheel to harness power from water that is still in use

Throughout my journeys in working with rural communities to develop their own

micro hydro system, I have come across many innovative efforts community
technical champions in trying to design their own micro hydro system. Some was
successful but some does not really work to its desired intentions. The idea is
there, but they lack the technical knowledge particularly on Civil and Electrical

One of the most interesting homemade micro

hydro systems that I came across was in Kg.
Garas, Tambunan, where our unsung hero and
maverick Kampung engineer Mr. Hamid Jasmin,
through trial and error developed his own
undershot waterwheel from scrap metal and
second hand automotive parts. He designed this
waterwheel all from the knowledge he acquired
from a small handbook, he named this waterwheel
“Balasut”. Hamid creatively used old cement mixer sprockets and a used car
gearbox for the speed increaser to enable the waterwheel turn the generator to
a specified speed to generate electricity.

The design is simple and cheap by making

use of second hand parts and scrap metal.
However there is still need for
improvement on the design particularly on
the civil structure design, mechanical and
electrical control system. The prototype
that was installed in Kg. Garas, Tambunan
require the drive belts to be changed once
in 3 months. The drive belts cost can cost
up to RM 400 making it the highest
maintenance cost otherwise the
operational cost will be minimal. It is

recommended that the system should use flexible coupling from drive shaft to
the gearbox.

One of my key concerns on this system is the lack of safety on the electrical
system. The system does not have any load controller and voltage regulator. The
voltage of the system is very unstable mainly due to the problem from the drive
system that controls the speed of the generator. Because of the inconsistent
speed of the generator, the voltage sometimes reaches 350 volts! This is highly
dangerous to users. Electrical appliance especially sensitive electronic devices
can easily be damaged when connected to this voltage. Another concern is the
lack of understanding of the importance
of hydrology and civil works. Based on
my observation, there is some serious
concern on the location of the
waterwheel which is located too near to
the river bank, making it very
vulnerable to flash floods. This is proven
on one of the system that Mr. Hamid
developed for Sabah Parks in Kg. Buayan Penampang which washed away by
flood waters in September 2008.

The other interesting design I came across was in Kg. Abok Mawan in Serian,
Sarawak. I was by chance visiting the neighboring village of Kg. Abok Aping. I
met with another maverick kampung engineer named Jacob Emang and his son
Ziegler. From their own initiative fabricated many different water wheels
including a giant 15ft diameter bucket wheel installed in his fish pond, this
bucket wheel is fabricated all from scrap metal. From his basic technical
knowledge, Jacob designed a small waterwheel that uses two water jets to turn
it. He called it “pipeton” wheel, mainly because it looks like a pelton turbine that
he made from cut of half section of
4”pipe and welded to a flat belt pulley.
His initiative have since caught the
attention of a University Masters
student and a local business man that
worked together to get this prototype
to be installed in Kg. Abok Mawan.
Since it was installed it has been
supplying electricity to the long house.
However this system still requires some
improvement particularly in the
electrical control system.

These examples have shown how creative the community in trying to solve their
problem. I think what is needed is some form of support to have technology
transfer and trainings for the communities to enable them design and develop
their own micro hydro systems. One of the good examples that can be replicated
in Malaysia is the Micro Hydro Power Program (MHPP) in Indonesia that was
supported by GTZ. This program was to facilitate technology transfer to local
fabricators and manufacturers of small hydro turbine in Bandung. The program
was very successful that today many of the local manufacturers are now
producing very high quality turbines and control system for local installation and
also for export. One of the participants of this program is HEKSA HYDRO; they
are now one of the top designer and supplier of micro hydro system in the
region. I have the opportunity to engage with HEKSA HYDRO in many of my
micro hydro projects in Sabah and Sarawak.

We believe that similar program like the MHPP in Indonesia can benefit the local
manufacturers to develop small business in micro hydro. Such program will also
improve the local expertise in micro hydro to further develop their ideas to
another level. Perhaps Ministry of Science and Technology (MOSTI) will be able to
support such initiatives to improve the existing designs and use it for rural
applications. PACOS have been conducting pilot projects and found that micro
hydro is a better option to rural electrification through small scale renewable
energy program.