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Question inspired by questions about best power source for zombie apocalypse and mine question about rebooting the nuclear power plant:

Setup: Deadly virus wiped out 80% of population. We are following a group of 500 survivors who managed to go through the disasters and take care of themselves for 2 years already (Story time is 2 years after disaster).

This group wants to have electricity back. Because fridges, lights in the night and planning to set up some broadcast and try to find out if there are more survivors (for whatever reasons, they did not find any new survivor for past half a year)

The group is located nearby power source of your choice. Only limitation is that this power source has to be existent (and running) by end of year 2016.

The problem: No one in group actually worked in any power plant or anything related to power generation. There are clever people inside the group (know how stuff works and/or handymen).

Also, for whatever reason, the power source of your choice went through emergency shutdown and is not generating any power at the moment.

The tools: Assume you have access to public library. Also assume that there might be some general manuals to be found inside the power plant. Also assume that most of security devices in and around the plant are not working and the group already managed to get to the power plant.

The goal: People in my group calculated that they need at least 10 MW of power to run their broadcasting station. (They might be wrong, but thats not scope of this question. Please consider this as limitation)

The question: What power plant is easiest to boot up from ground and run? And can you actually do it?

P.S.: No zombies are around and the group is not endangered by outside factors (weather and nature), so you have all the time you need. Just do not be stupid as I was last time with nuclear power plant

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    $\begingroup$ Wind Turbines. They don't seem to be a big thing in the US, but there are plenty of them if you have your setting in Germany; you'll be restricted to windy days but you won't run out of power; the largest of them have 3-5 MW, but they're built in parks of several to dozens of them, and they're designed to be mostly maintenance-free as many of them are installed in the north sea, away from coast visibility. $\endgroup$ – Guntram Blohm May 25 '16 at 15:37
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    $\begingroup$ A bit offtopic, but I noticed a small problem with your math. :) If the virus really wiped out 80% of population, that means that 1 in 5 people still live. If they managed to find only 500 people in 2 years, then that doesn't click. Just visit the closest metropolis and you should meat a few thousand more at the least. On the other hand, if the "80%" is just their best estimate, then why after 2 years haven't they revised it? $\endgroup$ – Vilx- May 25 '16 at 16:23
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    $\begingroup$ People in my group calculated that they need at least 10 MW of power to run their broadcasting station. That's way off, unless they're trying to broadcast to interstellar locations. Something to think about. Additionally, it would be a lot easier to get a bunch of smaller generators or smaller, old-technology power plants up and running reliably, post-collapse than 1 modern one... that's definitely the route I'd go, something for you to consider in your scenario. $\endgroup$ – HopelessN00b May 25 '16 at 17:16
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    $\begingroup$ 10MW for broadcasting? Hams can reach around the world on today's crowded bands with far less than 1000W (the legal limit for amateur radio, or maybe its 1500W now, power to the final amp, probably a bit more at the wall socket). With empty bands after a zombie apocalypse they'll do great with an amateur rig and associated decent antenna (which needn't be too complex). See QRP operation. $\endgroup$ – davidbak May 25 '16 at 17:17
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    $\begingroup$ I think you are vastly underestimating the level of complexity that comes with a 10MW power grid fed from a power plant. Even if you magically got the plant started you'd need people who know how the grid works, after all you can't well feed 10MW through a piece of wire from the hardware store... $\endgroup$ – fgysin Jun 1 '16 at 13:58

10 Answers 10

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For simplicity and versatility accept no substitute but diesel.

Diesel power is common, locomotives are basically diesel generators on rails, marine diesel is prolific anywhere around canals lakes or seas and there's also containerized diesel generators meant to be carried around by semis. You have a plethora of spare parts and if you for some reason lose or have to abandon your current generator it won't be hard to find a replacement.

It's mobile. While bound by rail, locomotives can move around very efficiently and while the rail system would be difficult to maintain large parts of it would survive for a good long time. On the naval end of things you are only bound by the coasts canals and lakes. While a containerized version can be moved just about anywhere.

It's easy. Diesel engines are pretty simple, they don't have an awful lot going on and industrial diesel generators usually have their operating manual stored with them. Anyone reasonably handy can learn to operate and maintain one. Often the same model of engine is used across industries so getting spare parts for your engine is easier.

It's reliable. Diesel generators for industrial use are designed to be operated for 20-30 years with only basic maintenance. They are a rugged simplistic design that can tolerate being abused. One particular video comes to mind of a couple of fellows with basic tools bringing a Soviet IS-3 tank to life that had been standing for 50-60 years on a plinth in Ukraine. This is especially relevant because you want to keep on using this power until you can build power generation of your own, something that may take decades.

It's powerful. Even small generators start in the tens of kilowatts and locomotives have thousands ( which makes them a bit overkill for running just a broadcasting station but having that much power allows you to do all kinds of fancy things ). This also means that your power generator is very compact for the amount of power that it produces.

It requires fuel. This is really the one and the big downside of a diesel generator. It requires a continuous supply of diesel fuel. While initially that will be readily available, in the long term all petroleum diesel will run out or simply go off. Even here there's upsides though. The larger marine 'diesels' can basically run off crude oil if you want to spend your time securing a wellhead. Or you can distill diesel from the crude, which actually isn't as complicated as it might at first seem. If all else isn't an option there is biodiesel, it'd put an additional strain on your food supply but it would produce a near indefinite supply of fuel ( that can be used to heat homes, cook, etc ).

TL;DR diesel power doesn't depend on where you are, isn't sensitive to climate, produces a lot of power, it's very reliable and is very easy to use.

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    $\begingroup$ Yep, totally agreed. However, this will only fit if the OP drops his ridiculous "10 MW power" requirement. For anything a small group of survivors might need, a diesel aggregate is natural choice, and finding fuel shouldn't be too big of a deal for quite a while. $\endgroup$ – Luaan May 25 '16 at 18:03
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    $\begingroup$ @Luaan Depends, honestly it'd just be a question of scale. Locomotive generators fall into the 1 to 2 MW range. That's five to ten locomotives, which is a lot but far from impossible. The main logistical issue there would be keeping them fueled. Get yourself a midsized ship engine and you hit the 10MW threshold pretty easy. But yes, 10MW of power is quite rediculous, you are running a pretty major settlement by that point. $\endgroup$ – Semni Istiqlal May 25 '16 at 18:15
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    $\begingroup$ @Luaan, some of the bigger diesel locomotives are around 5MW each, and are already connected to suitable generators. Marine diesels easily hit the 10MW level, but are generally direct-drive rather than electrical transmission, which means finding a generator and figuring out how to hook it up. $\endgroup$ – Mark May 25 '16 at 20:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Mark Modern ships are diesel-electric more often than not, even older ships have a shaft-generator though those cannot make use of the entire grunt of the ship. A diesel-electric ship would be jackpot, there's so much you can do with that. Locomotives are good if you want to get away from urban areas. Containerized generators are somewhat limited in their output but you can put em anywhere. All in all, good options. $\endgroup$ – Semni Istiqlal May 26 '16 at 3:22
  • $\begingroup$ Also, the main requirement for rail maintenance comes from high tonnages and speeds -- if you don't mind poking along at restricted speed, you can get a locomotive over some quite decrepit-looking track! $\endgroup$ – Shalvenay May 26 '16 at 22:39
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Small hydropower is the best bet

with the acknowledgement that without replacement parts, it'll be impossible to maintain the plant long term.

Why hydro?

Hydro power is very old and can be achieved with relatively primitive machinery. The earliest hydropower dams were built in the 1880s. Small Hydro plants by definition of output in the 1 to 20MW range neatly fit the 10MW power output. Hydroplants are designed to run in corrosive environments so being left unattended for 2 years will be less of an issue than other power plant types.

Assuming that the plant manuals are still around, it shouldn't be too hard to bring the plant back on line.

Small hydroplants also tend to be found on the fringes away from large population centers where the broader power grid can't or doesn't go. Hydropower only works in hilly or mountain country thus increasing the defend-ability of the town/plant.

Challenges

While a small hydroplant is more likely to work, there are still significant challenges in practically all aspects.

  • Dynamo maintenance: The survivors will need to ensure that the dynamos are properly lubricated and kept within their normal operating tolerances. The plant manuals will have this kind of information

  • Dam maintenance: Depending on the size, construction method and age of the dam, this will either be a huge problem or not a problem.

  • Spare parts: This. Given the industrial capacity of the world has basically disappeared, you'll be limited by what spare parts you have on hand. Further, the local fabrication facilities are probably inadequate to make a new dynamo spindle or the miles of copper wire required for windings. Even if the local fabs can create the parts you need, you'll have the considerable difficulty of finding sources for the raw materials in the right alloys for the job.

  • Power distribution: You'll need line workers to maintain the power lines and all the tools/equipment required for those tasks. The cost of failure here is measured in lives lost.

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  • $\begingroup$ In the library and in the powerplant there should be knowledge how, for example, Francis turbine looks like and true handyman can be able to re-build it. $\endgroup$ – Crowley May 26 '16 at 16:02
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The answer is that it really depends, but most likely no.

Knowledge

Power plants are insanely complicated, and fairly sensitive. If you don't know exactly what you're doing it's very easy to damage it beyond salvage, or cause some terrible explosion/fire. I'm sure modern plants are fairly automated, so you may be able to walk up to the control room, push a few buttons, and have it all turn on, however if a single one of the systems malfunctions you may wish you hadn't touched those controls.

Furthermore, even if all the manuals needed to understand the plant were available, reading and understanding them would probably take a lot of prerequisite knowledge, and a lot of man-hours to get through. After all, the plant had dozens, if not hundreds of employees, each with knowledge of the systems in their own area. Very few people are capable of absorbing and being able to use all of that information.

Realistically, you'd want at least some of the survivors to be familiar with the systems, and know what's going on, otherwise your chances of getting the plant running again are going to be very slim.

Fuel and Supplies

Which brings us to the next point: all power plants require one or more of fuel, spare parts, maintenance, etc.

They do not exist in a vacuum - they require a constant inflow of supplies to operate. You lack the resources to provide those supplies, and probably the knowledge of what maintenance needs to be done, and more importantly, when it needs to be done.

Any large, modern power plant is probably going to be a no-go.

Possible Solution

You may have more luck with some smaller, local hydroelectric, or solar panel power systems.

Consider that some people have geothermal plants installed in their homes, or solar panels installed on their roofs. You may be able to scavenge those, or -and this is even better - come across the warehouse of the company that installed those systems in the first place. Use their technical manuals, etc. to install new systems, or scavenge the ones from their customer's homes, and set them up in your own base.

Note: my neighbor has a pretty cool solar power system installed on his roof, and he actually generates more power than he needs. He sells the excess to the city. We also have friends which live in a more isolated part of British Columbia. They installed a geothermal power plant in their house - yes, they actually exist - so that they wouldn't lose power during their rather ridiculous winter months. You can't install them just anywhere - they do a survey to see whether your location is viable first - but they are pretty awesome, and once installed they will keep going for decades. And while pricey, you don't have to be a millionaire to afford them.

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  • $\begingroup$ Yep, fuel is a big deal. The only kind of fuelled power plants that can run without a constant supply of fuel are nuclear. We usually switch the fuel once in a few years, but that's long before the plant loses the ability to produce electricity. You could probably stretch out the runtime to a decade or two per reactor, even more if you keep the power output relatively low. In any case, it's nothing like a coal plant, where you need to bring a whole train of fuel every day (and often, not just once a day :D). Of course, there's other problems with using NPPs in a survival scenario... $\endgroup$ – Luaan May 25 '16 at 18:00
  • $\begingroup$ Nuke would be awesome because the defense-in-depth would be forgiving to newbie mistakes. The problem is you can't blackstart a nuke, you need way more power to spin up the condensers than you can get from the onsite diesels. Really, you'd get your 10MW from those diesels themselves, after stabilizing the reactor so it can go a few hours without them. Other problem is, that nuke would have Fukushima'ed a day or two after the operating crews got zombified. If they did not, the plant site would be a militarized bulwark of normal humans. $\endgroup$ – Harper May 25 '16 at 23:18
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    $\begingroup$ The touble with a lot of small renewable systems is that the inverters are designed NOT to island. They will only work if they are tied to an existing well-managed (voltage/frequency within fairly strict tolerances) grid. There are exceptions to this but they are very much exceptions, especially in places where the grid is normally reliable. $\endgroup$ – Peter Green May 26 '16 at 0:54
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I'm surprised that nobody has mentioned the wind turbines that are spread across Europe. Not only would they most likely be completely untouched by a zombie apocalypse but also they do not need rebooting as they'll already be running and they take minimal maintenance and manpower to run. It's simply a matter of tapping into the right part of the power grid.

This is a much simpler option than almost any other beyond perhaps finding an intact PV solar farm.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is a really good point. Hell, the car dealer half a mile down the road from me has a wind turbine, and I'm in the US. They're designed to run with virtually no interaction and minimal maintenance to be cost-effective investments for businesses looking to save money on power. $\endgroup$ – HopelessN00b May 25 '16 at 22:37
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    $\begingroup$ What they can't do is blackstart. Windmills, solar, coal and nuke cannot go "online" into an AC grid unless they have incoming power to give them something to phase-lock to. Thanks to Mr. Tesla and his phased AC power. Thermal plants also need incoming power to spool up feedwater pumps, condensers, and other apparatus needed to make that turbine want to spin. You could hack the windmill to be a master sync, one problem: it's on top of a pole. $\endgroup$ – Harper May 25 '16 at 23:31
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    $\begingroup$ Also, when it comes to doing maintenance those things are very complicated and above all dangerous to maintain. $\endgroup$ – Semni Istiqlal May 26 '16 at 3:20
  • $\begingroup$ @SemniIstiqlal but still a whole lot easier (and safer) than maintaining any existing full sized power plant. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix May 26 '16 at 7:12
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    $\begingroup$ @Harper, the point is that they probably won't need to blackstart, they'll have been quietly spinning on their own all through the troubles, still generating power while the world burns. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix May 26 '16 at 7:14
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Diesel

A 10MW genset is surprisingly small, but the datacenter ones are designed to self-start when the mains power goes out. At this size they're still quite similar to their smaller portable cousins, and the engine is similar enough to truck and train engines that I'd expect a decent field mechanic to be able to work on it without too much difficulty.

Assuming that the you find one which self-started in the apocalypse has run out of fuel and batteries, you ought to be able to start it up easily once those are restored. It may be as simple as pushing a start button. Of course, you'll probably need a smaller generator to charge the batteries, and you need to find a big stockpile of diesel fuel.

They're fairly ubiquitous. I used to work in an office which had one of these in an outbuilding. You'd probably find them in datacenters, telephone exchanges, railway yards, and government buildings. You might get very lucky and find one that's already loaded on a truck.

BTW, 10MW is a heck of a lot if you put it into a radio antenna.

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Museum of science and industry could provide suitable machines.

Some old diesel engines were capable of running on crude oil. Such engines could probably still be found in some "Museum of science and industry" in a running condition. If the museum actually runs the engine, it should be some maintenance tools in its workshop.

enter image description here

(Wikipedia CC)

Same about steam engines that can also be found in museums and would run on the trivial wood. A steam locomotive could be started on some wooden fence and still can use existing rails of the same gauge. Many are preserved by museums and hobbyists. It was not unusual to move some locomotives away from rails and use as generic engines in the past.

The museum could also provide some old generators to connect to these machines. Same, they may not be so great and efficient, but these old designs may be much easier maintainable, with many parts being larger than now and possible to produce from the piece of metal with relatively simple tools. Also, these old machines were often built to last for decades, and maybe museum has restored them into "better than new" condition.

Unlike modern devices, old machines relied less on the complex infrastructure around them.

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    $\begingroup$ Well, museum is not power plant but museum with operational generator and steam engine or water wheel can be rebuild to a power plant easier than any power plant can be turn back to life. $\endgroup$ – Crowley May 26 '16 at 15:54
  • $\begingroup$ This is a good answer. While getting 10MW out of a museum piece rebuild job is unlikely, I think it is still much more feasible than restarting even the most simple of power plants. $\endgroup$ – fgysin Jun 1 '16 at 13:51
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If we picked up your scenario and dropped it near Deerborn Michigan, I'd say the people there would have a very good chance of reintroducing mechanical power and electricity by raiding the Henry Ford museum. In that museum, they'd find Industrial Revolution Era steam engines of various sizes and with the help of the local library plus the information in the museum itself, they could probably get the engines running again. There is also a complete gas-powered electrical plant, circa 1916. The novelty here is that the machines were built more simply and required less sophisticated maintenance.

More importantly, the museum could instruct them on how to build their own electrical generation technology based on what was being done between 1880 and 1930s: How to build lead-acid / oil batteries, how to build simple dynamos, that sort of thing.

Assumptions: They've gotten this far to the point where they're thinking about long-term power and communication. That means they've already figured out fairly reliable near-term food supply and how to cope with Michigan's cold winters.

They'd have to start small and work their way back up. The broadcasting would need to be the last priority, particularly if the group has to learn that tech as well. Hand-cranked generators coupled with scavenged modern rechargeable batteries and LEDs would provide ample lighting. For refrigeration, propane fridges would work in the short term and propane tanks could be scavenged relatively easily - though watch out for rusty tanks! In time, they could form a plan of technology advancement based on what they can learn combined with what they can scrounge from the museum itself and the town nearby. In time, they could regain the level of comfort and security that their great-grandparents were accustomed to - which probably looks pretty good to them from their point of view.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is only valid within a very limited scenario, so did you really answer the question? $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM May 25 '16 at 13:38
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    $\begingroup$ @AndreiROM, I approached the topic from the confines of the premise: He wanted a power plant. Given the realities of modern power generation (clearly expressed in your answer), the only viable option was an old one. Sadly, they're hard to come by, except in museums. $\endgroup$ – Jym May 25 '16 at 14:17
  • $\begingroup$ I agree, but I specifically mean that you're severely restricting your solution in your very first sentence: "If we picked up your scenario and dropped it near Deerborn Michigan". What if this was taking place hundreds of miles from there, however? I get that they could build some basic steam tech anywhere in the world, but you only describe it from one very narrow point of view. $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM May 25 '16 at 14:24
  • $\begingroup$ Why there? none of their engines is close to 1MW let alone 10MW ( hint- there are no industrial revolution era engines over 0.1MW; post-Victorian ones such as kemptonsteam.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/emginesmain.jpg are 0.75MW and that claims to be the largest one still running today) $\endgroup$ – Pete Kirkham May 25 '16 at 15:05
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    $\begingroup$ @AdrieROM I don't have to worry about things "taking place hundreds of miles from there" because the OP stated "The group is located nearby power source of your choice". I chose Deerborn. So yes, I really did answer the OP's question. $\endgroup$ – Jym May 25 '16 at 16:24
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The most viable solution is likely to be a small or medium sized diesel generator of the type either used for outdoor events and construction sites etc or alternatively large buildings especially hospitals etc will often have substantial generators for emergency power.

These often have simple or automated starting and are designed to be in standby mode for long periods of time with relatively little maintenance (certainly compared to dedicated power plants). They also tend to be based on fairly rugged and simple diesel engines so there is a pretty reasonably chance that anybody with some knowledge of motor mechanics would be able to get them going without too much trouble. Also in the situation you describe finding fuel shouldn't be too much of a problem.

This type pf generator also has the advantage that it is likely to provide power at an immediately usable voltage so you are not having to work about all of the infrastructure associated with distribution that goes with centralized power plants.

Possibly the ideal situation would be to find a large portable generator which was in storage at the time of the disaster.

As noted in some of the other answers a colony like this probably wouldn't really need all that much electrical power as you might just as well use wood fires for heating and cooking and candles or lanterns for light.

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Steam or coal power

Honestly, these day, most everyone could figure out how to build a steam based power plant. It's pretty simple when you get past all the regulations and environmental protections.

You would need a source of water, heat, and the wiring bits. Water is water, get it where you can. Heat can come from anything that can produce a fire. Coal, wood, gas, oil, whatever. Coal and Wood are going to be the easiest. Wiring bits are gonna be a bit rough. You could get them from a current power plant, though that would likely be more complicated then building a plant on your own. You need iron, copper wire, some kind of tank to heat the water in, and a decent set of tools. Most people with a library book and high school science class could build one.

The down side, is were talking about a small power plant. Your not going to power an entire city. Transmitting energy long distances is very tricky and would require more work. A fridge or two, a radio transmitter, maybe even some street lights, sure. You could even extend it to power a small town. Much more then that though and your going to need to extend your power plant.

The good news is that as your survivor colony grows, so does there knowledge of maintaining the power. Just like in the real world, over the years, the power plant will grow, expand, have issues, get upgrades. In 10 years time there will likely be a specialized "power guy" that spends all his time providing power. Then all you have to do is figure out what to do with master/blaster and all your power problems are solved.

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Build your own. Go for multiple micro-hydroelectric generators in parallel. Using wood, plastic, sheet metal or whatever you can scavenge, channel water through steel drums containing handmade turbines and connected to motorbike or car alternators. The finished product may look a bit ropey but:

  1. it'll do the job
  2. it has no single point of failure
  3. if you need more power, just add more turbines
  4. it won't go BOOM if it breaks.
  5. you should be able to find hundreds of alternators without any difficulty
  6. other components can very easily be made from scrap.

enter image description here

In the scenario described there is nothing to stop your guys scavenging a warehouse full of alternators from abandoned vehicles; the other components can be made from practically anything including wood, which shouldn't be in short supply. Alternators can last for years (or decades) and are made from a few fairly simple components (wire coils, diodes), although as other answers have noted your biggest problem is likely to be worn bearings since these will be effectively irreplaceable.

A bigger problem (as other answers have noted) is power storage, but that's beyond the scope of the question as currently worded.

Edit: just realised I left out caption and attribution of the image: it's from here where it is described as

"Micro Hydroelectric generation in NW Vietnam village. Set-up involves bamboo and wooden sluices channelling water into oil drums fitted with hand-carved bamboo turbines. Electricity generation was via motorbike alternators."

Original uploader was User:Shermozle; photo under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

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