Field Study and Service-Learning MediaBlog

15 March, 2008

La Tigra: ICE Penas Blancas Hydroelectric Plant

Ronald Shows Us How Hydropower Works
In the picture, Ronald is walking us through the touch screen computer system that controls the turbine that is shut off. He didn't want to mess around with the functioning turbine... The entire system can be turned off by simply pressing 'stop' on the screen. One can see at what capacity the turbine is functioning, how much electricity is being produced, and can manage most of the plant's operations on this screen. While the turbines are controlled on these screens, the station itself is managed from San Jose, over a hundred kilometers away! Ronald actually lives in San Jose and commutes to the plant a week at a time.

¿How Much Water from Hydropower?
At the lowest of three levels in the Peñas Blancas hydroelectric power plant is where two of these contraptions are located. A large tube carries water from the Peñas Blancas River down to the plant, where it is split into two tubes to feed the two Francis turbines. At maximum capacity, each tube shoots 18 cubic meters of water through...per second! The water flows through each of the tubes through a spherical valve, which is responsible for starting and stopping water flow. Keep in mind that the water flows from the left of the picture to the right, where the large spherical valve is located. This plant receives around 2,000,000 cubic meters of water per day!

 Hydropower Turbine Axle
The rushing water flows through the open spherical valve and hits the Francis turbine, which in turn begins to spin rapidly. The turbine is connected to a vertical axle which is pictured here. The axle is also connected by these enormous bolts to the generator axle above it, which turns the generator. This connection between the turbine and the generator is responsible for turning mechanical energy into electrical energy. This entire contraption will spin at a nominal speed of 514 revolutions per minute. Our tour guide Ronald had to make sure the operators didn't plan on turning it while we were in there, these machines can be incredibly dangerous to those without proper training.

How Does the Spherical Valve Work Miguel?
Miguel explained how exactly the spherical valve works. The valve cannot regulate the amount of water coming through; it can only turn the water flow on and off. The power plant is 135 meters lower in elevation than the dam, meaning that a great deal of water is coming towards the plant at a high velocity. 'Head' as it is referred to, is the altitude difference between a reservoir and the hydroelectric plant. The water thus comes through with a lot of pressure in order to turn the turbines. When water flow must be cut off, pressure to the hydraulic system is reduced, which allows a weight to close the valve automatically.

Hydroelectric Hydraulics Revisited
Hydraulic power is used for a few different things at the Peñas Blancas hydroelectric plant. First and foremost, the spherical valve which turns the water flow on and off is regulated by a hydraulic system. There is also an emergency brake at the plant, just in case. This is just one of the many safety measures taken by ICE in constructing this plant. The brake is simply a piston which, through hydraulics, is pushed up into the generator to stop it in case of emergency. The hydraulic system also controls the blades of the Francis turbines and shifts their angle to the water in order to maximize efficiency. All of these hydraulic systems are controlled by the machine pictured above.

Where Does the Water Go After the Hydroelectric Plant?
Once the water is forced through the turbine, it drops down into a canal that stretches 1,976 meters back to the Peñas Blancas River. In this way, the station can be seen as a closed system. It diverges water from the river, through the plant, and back to the river. Although hydroelectric projects do not contribute to global warming, they do have a very serious impact on their immediate surroundings. The river dries up as most of the water is held up in a reservoir, which floods immense stretches of land containing ecosystems and cities. Costa Rica derives 70% of its electricity from hydropower.

Author: Esequiel Zylberberg

12 March, 2008

San Ramón: Family Organic Coffee Production

 Organic Coffee Harvesing
A family business harvesting organic coffee in San Ramon. Here they are separating the red beans from the few green ones and also removing rotten beans. The whole family is involved in this enterprise. One of the many challenges for organic coffee growers in Costa Rica is the lack of organic processing plants near the coffee farms. The wide fluctuation in market prices has discouraged farmers from forming organic cooperatives because at current rates, conventional practices are more lucerative. Modernization has caused more family members to take jobs in cities and there are fewer family laborers in rural areas. In order for the organic farmers to be compensated for the extra labor costs they endure, organic coffee should be priced 38% higher than conventional coffee.

Organic Coffee Processing
In order to be certified organic, the facility that processes the coffee must process only organic berries. Gary sells his coffee to a local processing plant about 15 minutes away from La Patriana Farm. It is a family run, small scale plant whose facilities are located at the house of Pablo and his family. One shed contains the machine that separates the coffee beans from the berries. Outside behind the shed, there are wooden shelves covered in plastic where the beans are dried. We were lucky to see the plant in action and watched as the machine took in the red berries and expelled white coffee beans and berry pulp. The berries are then sent elsewhere to be roasted and the pulp is used for compost.

Author: Lisa Rogers

11 March, 2008

La Fortuna: Medicinal Plant Garden

'El Jardin' (Medicinal Herb Garden)
This organic herb garden located in Fortuna was founded by a woman named Christina and is now maintained today solely by her and her husband. The herbal garden was created about fifteen years ago. The institution Andar came to a community in Catarata to teach people how to grow plants and medicinal herbs for a group called GEMA (Grupo Ecologico de Mujeres de El Abanico), where Christina learned how to grow her plants. GEMA is a womens’ group based in Arenal that produces organic teas, spices, and medicinal herbs, and they buy the dry herbs Christina produces. Also, the University of Costa Rica helped teach the women of GEMA about medicinal herbs and gardening. The garden is open to visitors and Christina sells herbal teas made from her plants and other GEMA gardens, along with her own Shampoo.

Medicinal Plant Education
Christina gives tours of her facilities: The garden, a shaded area for her plants, her verma composting (worm composting), her kitchen where she produces her shampoo, and her cows whose milk she sells. Her small finca (farm), approximately 6 hectares, provides the local community with fresh milk, herbs to naturally cure most ailments and shampoo. She maintains it while educating around 40 people a month from all over the world, including France, Germany, and Australia on her sustainable practices. Two companies from France and one from Germany purchase her products. Additionally, her farm provides an ecosystem haven for many birds, such as toucans and hummingbirds, who come because of certain flowers. Also, there were many nests in her garden that were hanging on the trees of her property but the wind knocked them over so she picked them up and hung them in her garden patio.

Medicinal Plant Samples
Depicted above are a few of the things that the herbal garden contains. To the left you can see aloe Vera, which is good for your skin. You can put it on your sun burns and cuts to help your skin heal. On the right is pepper. It looks beautiful, but caution--it is spicy if you take too much in at once.
Pepper is an example of one of the spices in the garden.

Medicinal Plant Products
Shown here are dried herbs (left) and the shampoo that Christina makes & sells (right), which is made with organic herbs from her garden. All of the shampoo is produced in her home and is mostly sold locally. Her shampoo helps with dandruff and hair loss and is also said to strengthen the hair and revitalize its natural shine. The label on the shampoo is presently 'Eco Verde' something she came up with. However the name will soon be changed to 'El Jardin la Aroma-Tica' (the name of her garden) which translates to 'The Tica perfume or fragrance', in order to unify her projects and get more advertisement out. She is also currently working on getting a certificate that will allow her to sell her products to local hotels.

Drying and Shading the Plants
Before sending the herbs to GEMA, Christina dries them (the image of the drying room is to the left). Then someone from Abanico, the main GEMA sight, comes and picks up the dried products for packaging, and labeling. Some herbs are made into teas and some are made into spices. Some plants, according to Christina, need to be sheltered from the strong Costa Rican sun, so she has built a shaded area to protect
some of these plants. This is also the site of the vermicompost.

The Vermi-Compost
Vermicomposting uses earthworms to turn organic waste into a very high quality compost, in this case Christina uses the manure from her cows. The worms digest the manure, and the result is a rich, dark, earth-smelling soil conditioner. The great advantage of worm composting is that it can be done indoors and outdoors, thus allowing year round composting.

Institutional Connections of the Garden
Fundecooperation para el Desarollo Sostenible provided the group GEMA with money which helped them with their group effort. Fundecooperation was founded in 1992; there mission is to help improve social working conditions of the general Costa Rican public. They focus on sustainable tourism, environmental drive, clean technologies, sustainable agriculture, and fairness in general.
Vaccaciones con Familias Campesinas is a group of families in small communities of northern Costa Rica that accommodate tourism by trying to show tourist how they live their daily lives. Visitors can stay in a home stay and live like the locals. Some of the things that tourist can do are: Milk cows, fish, or help with the agriculture production. The organization also offers trips from one side of Costa Rica, the pacific, to the other, the Caribbean, which can last up to 21 days.

Author: Rosalinda Gonzalez

09 March, 2008

La Fortuna: Biogas-Powered Cottage Industry

Farm-Scale Biodigestor
This biodigestor is basically made up of a large bag that is filled with manure (in this case cow) and water and the methane gas that is released as a by-product of the decomposition process is used as an energy source for Christinas house (the tube connected to the bag in this image goes directly to fuel the stove in the kitchen). The entire operation cost around 300,000 colones, which is approximately $600. The sign standing above and to the left of the biodigestor (the close-up image on the right) reads: “Mi Proyecto participa en el Plan de Gestión de la Cuenca del Rio Peñas Blancas”, which is in reference to the main power distributor in Costa Rica, ICE, paying for a portion of the biodigestor in an effort to preserve the health of the river basin.

Shampoo Manufacturing Room
Christina makes all of her shampoo in a room right next to her house. She keeps the area very clean and abides by health regulations. When you enter the shampoo making room the first thing you see is a sink, where you wash your hands. Next to that is a methane powered burner. She uses the methane produced from her biodigester to fuel the stove that she uses to make the shampoo by running a tube from the biodigestor in her backyard to the burner. This practice makes her shampoo manufacturing process more sustainable, because she is producing her own gas, and it is from a local source (her cows).

Author: Rosalinda Gonzalez

08 March, 2008

San Ramón: Finca Patriana Organic Coffee Farming

Tour of Organic Bird-Friendly Coffee Farm
During our visit, our group was given a tour by Gary, the owner of La Patriana farm. His wife was out of the country at the time. Gary stated that it was her idea for La Patriana to become a bird-friendly coffee farm and they are now the only certified bird-friendly coffee farm ever in Costa Rica. To be bird friendly, a farm is required to have 10 different species of trees within a 50 meter radius. For this reason, the farm resembles a forest and one must look closely to identify the individual rows of coffee in the understory. La Patriana is also certified organic (to be bird-friendly a farm must be organic) and until last year was part of a cooperative of 8 farms. Unfortunately, the other 7 dropped out of the coop and went conventional due to the reduction in market premiums for organic coffee.

Shade Grown Coffee
Coffee plants are naturally meant to be in the shade. Traditionally, they do not thrive in the direct sun. In addition to providing the partial shade a coffee plant needs, trees in shade grown coffee farms provide habitat for many species of birds. The recent reduction in shade trees in coffee growing areas has disrupted migratory bird populations up to 1500 miles away from coffee growing areas. Coffee harvests have three phases: Primary, main phase and final phase. This plant in ready for the final phase of harvest and therefore has only a few berries on each branch.

A 'Cajuela' of Harvested Bird-Friendly Coffee
When coffee is picked, it is measured in cajuelas for sale as well as to compensate pickers. After measuring each cajuela of coffee, the coffee berries are placed in bags for shipment to the processing plant. Notice the stark red color inside the coffee bag. Organic certification requires that the coffee berries that are picked are all red. Conventional coffee allows both red and green berries. Fully ripened coffee berries are red and
this results in a better quality coffee.

Gary Stenlund & Coffee Picker
Because his farm is only about 2 acres, Gary does not employ very many workers. He needs help only 2 or 3 times a year for 2 or 3 days at a time. When he does hire pickers, Gary hires from the local community. Many of the pickers grew up with families in the coffee business and are therefore very efficient. The pickers do have to adjust to picking only red berries when working for La Patriana. Gary pays a fair price and on the day we visited this picker was completing the final harvest. He made around $10 that day for 4 or 5 cajuelas of coffee. The picker stated that during the main harvest he made double that. This is a very fair wage for Costa Rica, but the work is seasonal and for La Patriana, is available few days in a year.

A video on Finca Patriana can also be found in the field study section of the EEI VideoBlog.

Author: Lisa Rogers