Setting up an Electricity Supply Deep in the Middle of an Unexplored Rainforest

Expedition Technician, Dan Sargison, describes the trials of powering an energy-hungry team in the most remote of locations

Demands Grow with the Expedition Plans

When I was first asked to power the camp back at the beginning of the project, we were thinking about a few lights, a laptop and the charging of some small kit. Now we’ve increased this to 10 walkie talkies, 5 satphones, a huge maritime satphone, 4 chunky laptops, a large HF radio, a fan, lots of video and photo camera batteries, GPS devices, a satellite BGAN terminal, and plenty of lights!

Since early 2010, we have been over lots of different ways to power all of this, from hydro and solar to pedal power, but reliability and cost is a massive issue so we now have a couple of solar panels, and a small petrol generator. I found the solar data from NASA on the Internet for Indonesia giving me figures for the panels, but we had to rely on something that we could work with in-country in an emergency that wouldn’t cost a fortune.

Solar Future and Human Hamsters

In future expeditions with more funding, I’d like to think that solar is the way forward, but then what do you do if there is a week of bad weather? There has to be a backup method for safety reasons and this was something that was painstakingly calculated and experimented with over the past year. Converting two of my own vans with a simple but robust 12V electricity supply, I knew I was up to the job but with some modification and a tight budget.

The option that drew a lot of my attention was a bike on a stand using a car alternator with a human hamster providing the leg power, but after working out that the amount of extra rice needed to feed the peddler to provide the energy, weighs more than the petrol used to provide the same amount of electricity through a generator, plus who can pedal for 15 hours a day in this heat and humidity? I thought I’d sideline that one for another time. Wind power isn’t possible because there is no wind in the jungle!

Kit Choice vs Weight

So choosing the bits and bobs to bring with us was tough! I like a selection of tools, cables and switches but freighting costs forced me to bring the bare minimum, and I don’t mind saying that I think we’re doing just great! Although I’m constantly battling to remind people of the previously agreed power usage, I guess the need to edit the media we’re getting out here is an important job, plus it keeps me on my toes and my little corner of the science tent is always buzzing away.

Apart from a few niggles with a couple of minor pieces of equipment already going BANG or on their way out, everything is going swimmingly and we’re managing to keep people well-lit, well charged, and online when needed so I feel like I’ve accomplished something. In over 30 degree heat with such high humidity, we’re really pushing the kit to its limit so my fingers are crossed that we reach the end with a still-working mini “power station”.

It’s All Worth It

I knew all my worrying and testing would not be in vain and I suppose I’ll continue to worry about the electricity because someone’s got to! But then I see the images and videos being created for our website, and the live Guardian chat earlier this week, along with hopefully a few Skype chats with schools and I know I am in the right place.

After a long period of travelling, heavy lifting, clearing base camp for use and helping to construct the camp from scratch, apart from helping cut a trail the other day, it’s nice to now just have my head in a bundle of wires with a beady eye on the voltmeter just until everything’s settled and working perfectly. Then I can get back out into the jungle, knee-deep in mud surrounded in insects and wildlife!