Third-world technicians study alternative energy sources

On a clear day in November, the day the second space shuttle thundered off the pad at Cape Canaveral, the students at Eric Farber's International Energy School -- a hundred miles away -- were learning how to keep rice from spoiling.

While America's technical prestige rode with the shuttle, survival for the rural millions represented by the students at the energy school was riding with the students' work that day. Their countries' exploding village populations don't need a space shuttle. They need cooking fuels, irrigation pumps, food-preserving techniques, refrigeration for medicines, fresh water.

Nor could they afford the $15 billion and 15 years that go into a reusable spacecraft. What they need, they need cheaply and they need now.

Training in alternative energy technologies is what the Farber school conducts at the University of Florida, and it is one of the few schools, if not the only one, of its kind in the world.

The school began three years ago when Farber - a pioneer in solar and energy conversion - realized he could not possibly honor all the requests from underdeveloped countries for alternative energy consultations. Why not have them come to me, he suggested to the State Department. The department agreed and the Agency for International Development now finances the million-dollar-a-year operation in Gainesville, Fla.

So far, participants from 46 low- and middle-income countries have responded to the opportunity, 141 students in all, to take the twice-yearly 15-week courses.

With oil costs weakening most underdeveloped economies, the participants come to Gainesville to learn the basics about alternatives -- solar, wind, biomass, minihydro -- and how these can be applied to village-level needs. It is a technology focused on the needs of the massive strata of the world's poorest poor.

The school not only swaps technical knowledge, it builds what economists call intellectual capital - people who know what they're doing. To qualify for instruction, administrator George Shipp explains, you must be a middle-level technician, academic, or entrepreneur - with a future.

''We want people who are mature,'' Mr. Shipp says candidly, ''but not closed-minded,'' a strategy calculated to train people who will have growing influence on their governments' energy policies.

The aim of the school is to keep things simple. While nobody is immune to the claims of technology - high technology or low - the lack of understanding of basic techniques and processes leaves third-world buyers especially vulnerable to the charms of new contraptions.

The developing world is strewn with things that don't work, contends Mr. Farber, citing Sofret irrigation engines, windmills where there is no wind, distillation units that won't distill, and a junkyard of other ''alternatives'' rushed into without adequate appraisal.

It is a recognizable kind of third-world impulse buying, to which the energy school responds with a form of alternative consumer education.

An important aspect of the school's teaching, stresses instructor Leonard Leketek, is resource assessment - figuring out what you need. High-pressure salespeople and consultants will sell you anything, Mr. Leketek asserts, echoing Farber, and will charge you for figuring out what it is and where to put it.

After you've done your resource assessment, you may still end up buying something, but now you're in a position to say, ''I want one of those, and I want it over there.''

At the school participants learn not only what can be made, but actually produce working models in the school's lab. The main thrust is the development of devices that can be manufactured at the village level, using local labor, local materials, and local construction techniques. What finally gets introduced into local situations when the participants return home is entirely a local option.

The credo of the school is that every place has a resource - hydro, wind, biomass, the sun - and these resources can be matched to need.

Each student spends his 15 weeks immersed in local problems and emerges, Mr. Farber thinks, with the competence to begin to solve them. The solutions may be low-r.p.m. wind machines to pump surface or ground water and expand farm production, solar crop dryers to save larger portions of crops from spoilage, more efficient cookers to reduce deforestation, lighting for schools, health clinics - the stuff of progress.

Most important, Farber argues, these are technologies villages can develop today without waiting around for large-scale national or international intervention or big centralized projects. If conditions and needs change, the lower technology is flexible enough to change with them.

He scorns criticism that the impact of new technologies - high or low - on developing societies is not sufficiently understood. First, give me something that works, Farber says, and while it's working we'll debate the socioeconomic variables.

Staff member Roberto Pagano puts it another way. ''There is,'' he says, ''no zero-cost technology, no zero-cost progress.'' To those occasional complaints by participants that the United States is pushing alternative fuels -- the ''sun and dung'' resources -- so that the industrialized world can continue to monopolize dwindling oil and gas and expensive nuclear power, Farber and his staff respond in a positive way. Says instructor Leonard Leketek:

''We show them on our tours the dozens of American projects -- solar and other alternatives -- which are reversions to this type of technology. And they can see for themselves the pains of overdependence on oil. Developing countries now are not only in a position to copy our successes, they can avoid our mistakes.''

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