Teenager Builds Wind Power in Malawi: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

Here's an inspiring short documentary about a Malawian teenager who electrified his village with a windmill made from scrounged materials and a whole lot of determination. Guided by nothing more than an elementary school textbook that he got from the local library, William Kamkwamba designed and built his first windpower generator at the age of 14.

He has since built several more, attracted international attention, and been invited to speak at TED Africa. He will also be part of the inaugural class of the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, SA. More from Mark Frauenfelder's (of Make and BoingBoing) of William's recent autobiography The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind after the jump. More on do-it-yourself renewables in developing countries here.

"With no hope of getting the funds to go back to school, William continued his education by teaching himself, borrowing books from the small library at the elementary school in his village. One day, when William was 14, he went to the library searching for an English-Chichewa dictionary to find out what the English word “grapes” meant, and came across a fifth-grade science book called Using Energy. Describing this moment in his autobiography, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (co-written with Bryan Mealer), William wrote, “The book has since changed my life.”

Using Energy described how windmills could be used to generate electricity. Only two percent of Malawians have electricity, and the service is notoriously unreliable. William decided an electric windmill was something he wanted to make. Illuminating his house and the other houses in his village would mean that people could read at night after work. A windmill to pump water would mean that they could grow two crops a year rather than one, grow vegetable gardens, and not have to spend two hours a day hauling water. “A windmill meant more than just power,” he wrote, “it was freedom.”

For an educated adult living in a developed nation, designing and building a wind turbine that generates electricity is something to be proud of. For a half-starved, uneducated boy living in a country plagued with drought, famine, poverty, disease, a cruelly corrupt government, crippling superstitions, and low expectations, it’s another thing altogether. It’s nothing short of monumental."

Read the full review.

via BoingBoing.


Pedal Powered Carrousel

This pedal powered carousel was a regular attraction at a local plaza while I was in Granada this summer.

Like any bike powered gizmo, the technology is both dead simple and somehow totally engrossing: The front end of the bike is just for show (or for storing a stockpile of lollipops that the rider was giving out to the kids as they swung past). Instead of powereing the bike itself, the chain runs down to a drive-shaft that turns the whole platform.

When I first saw the ride it was packed with kids, and surrounded by parents who seemed to be as interested in the machine itself as in their children's giggles. It wasn't quite as popular when I came back to take photos.

There is a woman who makes milkshakes at local events in Vancouver with a bike powered blender and she seems to have the same kind of pull. For whatever reason people are captivated by the simple mechanics of pedal powered machines. Maybe it's a reaction to decidedly untactile digital technology which we now live with most of our time.

For a good bit of digital distraction, try a google image search for “pedal powered.” I'm looking for someone who would like to split the cost of the submarine with me.

Shaded Streets to Beat the Spanish Heat

After three months in Spain spending time with family and celebrating my wedding, my wife and I are heading back to North American soil. Now that the post-wedding dust has cleared, I've finally got a few minuts to post some thoughts and pictures that I've been saving.

Over the summer, the temperature in Granada was regularly hiting 40C on an exposed corner down the street from our apartment. The heat absorbed by black asphalt is a prime player in creating the urban heat island effect that gives cities their swelter summer days and nights.

Planting shade trees is often the proposed solution - a well shaded neighbourhood can be over 5 degrees cooler than the surrounding city. But trees take time to grow and some streets, especially narrow Spanish streets, don't have room for significant tree cover.

Here in Granada the city, sponsored by a local beer company (another good way to keep cool), hung shade cloth over the central portions of the city. [click image to see larger] It made for beautiful cool walking. Throw in a few fountains now and then, and terracotta roof tiles and you've got yourself one classy way to keep city temperatures down in the summer.

more on a similar note over at worldchanging.

The Icemen Melteth: Berlin Climate Change Installation

The Telegraph is running a beautiful series of photos of an installation of ice sculptures by the Brazilian artist Nele Azevedo. The one thousand human figures were arranged on the steps of the Berlin opera house. They are visually stunning, and seeing them in motion - melting and dripping under the sun- must have been even more powerful.

See the full series.

In the Streets: Urban Environmental Protests

The London Climate Camp took down their tents, windmills and solar panels yesterday, after a week on Blackheath. Neighbours are reported to have brought them over cakes and vegetables, and an impromptu soccer game was organized against a local team. On the same day, near the city of Quanzhou (China) an environmental protest of a very different kind started up: 10,000 people, outraged by the level of pollution they are obliged to live with, clashed with police and took two government officials hostage.

Really, both events are about the same thing: people pushing their governments to play their part in balancing out the environmental excesses of business and to help build a world that will remain livable both today and tomorrow.

Governments need that push. But given the choice I think we'd all rather stay on the side of the spectrum with windmills and cake, rather than the one with riot police and hostages.

The press had been calling the the Blackheath Climate Camp a "protest.” I'd call it a demonstration.

In the City (London's financial district) climate camp activists made clear what they were against: the green washing of coal fired power, the ineffective and distorted carbon trading structure, and political inaction on climate change. But at the Camp itself they also demonstrated what we could be doing instead. Not that anyone would want to live in tents on Blackheath forever. But the site and its facilities – from wind and solar energy to locally grown and seasonal food – demonstrated principles that could provide direction for a real alternative to our current heading.

If 3,000 people could set up a livable community for themselves in less than 24 hours, surely with a bit more time and resources we could do the same or better for the rest of the world.

The protests in China are the other face of public unrest: protests turned ugly when things have already gone too far. And Tuesday's clash was not an isolated event. In 2005, the last year for which there is a published record, there were 50,000 pollution related protests in China. Greenpeace estimates that 320 million people drink unsafe water. Rates of cancer and respiratory diseases have soared. And in response people have taken to the streets, not with an alternative, but with a threat: “change, or else”.

Once violence starts, it is difficult to know where it will stop. A colleague of mine who works in China came back from a research trip to tell me that environmental protests were one of the biggest threats to the country's political stability.

Cities have always been the focus of important struggles. Blackheath itself was the assembly point for the 1381 peasants rebellion in England. The civil rights struggle in the United States was fought in the streets of its largest cities. More recently Seattle, Quebec city, and London itself have been flash points for resistance to world trade policies. Cities provide the perfect mix of people, institutions and media to act as a megaphone for popular discontent. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Democracy means more than a vote every 4 years. Taking to the streets sends a powerful message to politicians that there is support for more profound, creative and ambitious change. But that is an opportunity that won't be around forever. Water, food and health, all hot buttons for urban unrest, will all be affected by climate change. And while the violence in China may result in better environmental regulations, it is difficult to know what a government could do when faced with protests over a climate induced water shortage.

Cities, and all of us who live in them, have an important role to play right now. We need to make use of the stage the cities offer to demonstrate in favour of a desirable future. It's infinitely better than having to protest against a present that has already become unlivable.


Bike and Death in Toronto: In Memoriam D.A.S.

It is a sensational ahd horrible story: former Ontario attorney-general kills Toronto courier and father of four Darcy Allan Sheppard in an incomprehensible explosion of road rage. There is no shortage of coverage of the event itself. But if anything positive is going to come out of this event, it is the increased attention that it is bringing to the safety needs of urban cyclists.

Both the National Post and the Globe and Mail are carrying commentary from Yvonne Bambrick, executive director of the Toronto Cyclists Union. As she points out in the NP article, bicycle use in Toronto has far and away outstripped the capacity of the city's current infrastructure. Leisure paths through parks may look nice, but what cyclists need are usable safe routes for day to day commuting.

Bicycles are an incredibly efficient form of transportation: They have an equivalent gas mileage of over 277 km/L (653mpg), they are cheap, help you stay fit instead of fat and combine easily with other forms of public transportation. People have been rattling off these benefits for ages – but it's only recently that cities have started to take bicycles seriously as a mode of transportation (not just a fun thing to do on the weekend).

As more and more cyclists take to the roads, whe need to make sure that they have a space of their own. Toronto is planning on implementing a version of Montreal's BIXI bike sharing system. BIXI owes at least part of its success to the 700km of commuter friendly paths recently built by the city.

Montreal wasn't always such a safe place to cycle. I can remember more than a few close calls from the days when I used to weave through city traffic. My older brother broke his hip on one of the city's main streets. But from cycling around Montreal this summer, I can tell you that a truly bike friendly city is a beautiful thing.
Hopefully Toronto will follow suit.

This post dedicated to the memory of Darcy Allan Sheppard


This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

Info on my consulting work, c.v. and current research focus is all here.