The village of San Pablo where Pablo Opimi Parapino (59) lives is in the Lomeiro region just seven hours away – a stone's throw by Bolivian standards – from the country's economic powerhouse, the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra. Nevertheless, the city is an entirely different world for him. To even just begin to understand what that means, one has to realize that the natural-gas rich, 370,000 square-meter Santa Cruz district is the largest inland administrative area in South America, but at the same time is home to fewer than three million people spread across an area larger than Germany. What is more, most of them live in the large urban conglomeration.
The local electricity supplier, Cooperativa Rural de Electrificación (CRE), which claims to be the world's largest power generation cooperative with over 500,000 members, sees itself confronted by many challenges in that connection. The equipment and power distribution lines together with the associated transformer stations have to be adapted to a hot climate with high levels of air humidity. On top of that, out in the country the power lines are long but serve only a few consumers. On other words, high investment costs are countered only by small revenue streams. The cooperative views the power connections for communities in rural areas above all as a social responsibility: "Only 12% of the consumers live in the rural districts of Santa Cruz and provide only 8% of the income," explains Dr. Fernando Haderspock, the man in charge of supply to rural areas at CRE. Nevertheless, between 2012 and 2015 – the period of highest investment in the energy supplier's over 50-year history – 20% of investment was spent on electrification of the widely dispersed small towns and villages. So in that connection, the acquisition of efficient and reliable plants that would work in parallel with existing systems was all the more important. In Bolivia reliance is increasingly being placed on natural gas, which is considerably cheaper than diesel.
Efficiency and reliability
The first natural-gas fueled MTU electricity gensets were installed in 2013 and immediately tested to the utmost by the operator in continuous duty. The result is clear as far as CRE is concerned: "The MTU gensets are undoubtedly state-of-the-art and so more efficient than other systems, which is why we operate them continuously," says Dr. Haderspock.
Not only the higher efficiency at medium voltage – 40% compared with the 35 to 37% offered by most other systems – but also the longer maintenance intervals, proved convincing right from the start. The last critical voices at CRE fell silent after a year in which the plants proved their reliability by operating in difficult conditions such as high air humidity levels, dust and semi-exposed generator rooms.
In addition, MTU has found a very good local distribution partner in Gerona Power, whose highly qualified staff ensure that the systems will continue to function perfectly in the future too. Besides their efficiency, the MTU gensets were relatively straightforward to adapt to the local operating conditions. "Thanks to the close cooperation between the Bolivian and German colleagues, which was significantly simplified by the advanced integrated remote diagnosis systems, we were able to find the right settings quickly" outlines engineering graduate Abel Dominguez, CEO of Gerona Power.
Juan Carlos Mejia, Manager Sales Continuous Gas Latin America, also highlights the importance of a reliable partner in the local market. "We passed on our accumulated knowhow in the field of sales, development, service and project management to Gerona Power ." There were a number of challenges that the partners had to overcome together: "Bolivia was not just a brand new market for MTU Onsite Energy. This was also the very first time that gas-driven gensets from MTU were successfully installed in South America in parallel mode with other systems. Without Gerona Power as a partner, we would never have gained a foothold in the Bolivian market," emphasized Mejia.
In all, four 20V and five 12V Series 4000 L62 gensets, plus a diesel-fueled 16V Series 4000 system, were installed at five central locations. All of these are connected to the Bolivian natural gas mains and supply the villages in their respective regions with electricity. The villages themselves are not connected to the gas grid and are reliant on gas cylinders for their supply.
Power in San Pablo
None of that has figured on the horizon of Don Opimi. He is just happy that his village now finally has a reliable power supply since it was connected to the San Ramón plant in 2013. His family has seen its quality of life increase dramatically as a result.
Shortly after the extension of the power grid came the phone masts of the public telecommunications company, which considerably simplified contact between, in some cases, widely dispersed families. And that meant that although six-year-old Romina, who lives with her grandparents in the small village of San Pablo, was not able to see her mother on Mother's Day, she was at least able to talk to her on the phone. In the rainy season when some of the roads are not even passable by motorbike, the network coverage also facilitates communication in emergencies. Romina's grandparents have recently opened a small kiosk to supplement their income from farming. Their pride and joy is a second-hand chest freezer which enables them to supply the villagers with cold drinks on hot days. "We can work at night now as well if we need to," says Don Pablo. After all, many of his customers are farmers themselves and so come by mostly in the evening after a long, hard day in the fields.
New quality of life
A few kilometers away from San Pablo is Puquio, which with a population of 500, is one of the larger settlements within a radius or 100 kilometers. There, the changes are even more far-reaching. In 2014, an electrically driven water pump was installed in the village. With it, the villagers' quality of life took an enormous step forwards. They now no longer have to carry buckets to and from a manual pump in the center of the village every day since they have water on tap at home. Something that is such a basic assumption for many, to the extent that they do not even give it a second thought, is understandably the pride and joy of a whole community here.
And Puquio can boast more than that. The village has had a community radio station since 2009 but it has only been able to transmit continuously since 2013. The channel is run by 27-year-old Ignacio Soqueré Motoré. Asked about the biggest advantage for the radio station, he does not have to think for very long: "Now we can stay on air for longer, which means we gain credibility in particular." To keep himself up to date with events, he uses the radio station's admittedly rather slow internet connection – but at least he can access the latest news that way.
The continuous supply of electricity also has another major advantage, which would be easy to overlook. The consumption of non-rechargeable batteries for radios has dropped considerably. In a country where functioning waste disposal structures in rural areas are extremely sparse or non-existent, and people are often unaware of how dangerous used batteries can be, that is a very significant development.
There has also been a joinery workshop in Puquio since 2008. Nicolas Cecari Peña (42) now works there full-time. He cannot charge the people from the surrounding villages very much for his work, but he still earns more than he previously did from farming. The big change happened in 2013 when the small business was able to change over from a diesel-fueled generator to the mains power grid. "When we had to buy diesel, we were paying 120 dollars a week. Now it costs us between 50 and 100 dollars a month, depending on the amount of work we have," Don Nicolas calculates. And that means more money left over for him and his family.
It gets dark at around half past six in the Lomeiro region. Whether it is in San Pablo, Puquio or one of the other surrounding villages – as darkness falls the lights go on everywhere as a matter of course. It is Mother's Day in Bolivia and the villagers meet up in the schools to celebrate the special day with evening performances and dances. The electricity may not have completely changed life here, but it has made it distinctly easier.