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Makerere’s best has eyes for sun & wind energy

By Stephen Kafeero

Top engineering student dreams of generating cheap electricity

I do not compete with other people because it breeds jealousy. I instead compete with myself of yesterday in order to make a better person today,” says Tonny Ongin, the 27-year old Mechanical Engineering graduate who topped this year’s Makerere University best students list.

Ongin earned every parent and student’s dream. He was the best student overall at Makerere University scoring a cumulative grade point average of 4.86.

Clad in a pink long sleeved shirt and flat front khaki pants, his pale complexion glows from the reflection of the sun rays from one of the corners of the tent under which we sit. He talks passionately about his life, his face lighting up often as he smiles.

Apart from his high grades, Ongin also has graduated with a project he is itching to do; ensuring that as many Ugandans as possible get access to cheap electricity generated from wind and sun.

“What moves me is setting a smart goal,” he says, “I have made it a point that by 2014 I should have amaster’s degree and by 2020 I should have a PHD and that sum up my academic ambitions in the next ten years.”

“I have studied Mechanical Engineering and I think I appreciate everything about it.” He says that he is looking at either remaining a designer but if it proves really good he could also go for petroleum engineering. He maintains the dream of making hybrid power project work.

He is already involved in petroleum; working for Delta Petroleum as an operations engineer after leaving his first job at Imprint Uganda where he was a consultant.

He says, however, he is still observing the conditions at home because to him education is not just about going to the class and studying but being really careful when choosing a career.

Difficult childhood

Ongin learnt early in life about the importance of making difficult choices carefully.

“Growing up  was not easy,” he says, “but when you are there in the village you just enjoy everything until you come to town and view a different part of life.”

He is talking about growing up in war-ravaged Apac district in northern Uganda and his expressive small honey coloured eyes constantly shift sideways as if he fears to let out a secret.

Like many Ugandan children growing up in rural areas, the future was not always certain for him.

He went to Adem Primary School up to primary five and then proceeded to Adir Primary School where he completed his P7 and got 16 points; not a good grade  for a future top brain.

He however failed to join secondary school because there was no money to pay for his school fees and so stayed at home in 1998.

His education journey was renewed by an uncle who took him back to school in 1999 at Ogwil Primary School where he had to re-sit primary seven again. The tough times were not over for him as he had to wait again in 2000 before he could finally join Nambyeso Agro Secondary school from 2001 to 2004, where he scored aggregate 6 out the 8 subjects he was doing. He then proceeded to Teso College Aloet in Soroti scoring 20 points and emerging the best student in the district.

Success formula

With a smile that does not leave his face, he describes himself as an engineer by birth, profession, practice, and belief. He says his success formula is not different from others but the only difference comes out in the element of hard work.

He says he is moved by a belief that if you put negative perceptions aside, everything is possible. “I look at anyone and anything good and then make it a challenge to make it better,” he says.

Inspired by Albert Einstein (1879-1955), the great German-born theoretical physicist renowned for his theory of relativity, he quotes him often.

He spends his free time reading Journals about topics that interest him; obviously engineering stuff.

Tonny Ongin was the overall best student at Makerere University’s 62nd graduation in January 2012. He spoke to The Independent’s Stephen Kafeero about a Hybrid power project he is working on and its compatibility in Uganda. Below are excerpts of this interview.

Tell me about your project. How does this system work?

It’s a combination of Solar and wind. They work independently. When there is really strong sunshine and the radiations are really strong, then there is less wind and when there is high wind speed there is usually less sunshine. We want to interface both systems to work together.  We do not have a lot of wind in Uganda but have the sun in abundance. Wind is cheaper but you need to acquire the turbines which are a bit expensive. To lower the cost of investment we put solar which is not so expensive. We are thinking of designing the wind turbines locally to make it cheaper.

Have you tried to sample or do any tests in regards to the project?

In some areas like Nakasongola where we did a case study, we realised that you can get more than 6 meters per second of wind speed but   sometimes it comes to as low as 1 but on average you get about 3.5. From this you can get more than 400watts of power. Our design was based on the system that was in place. In Nakasongola, there was a pump and we were trying to use the hybrid power system to pump underground water to a tank. It succeeded but the wind part was not steady because the height was not enough. That turbine was imported and the design parameters were not for Uganda conditions. We designed a new one that could match the Uganda conditions and tested it. When the virtual prototype came up we were producing over 400 kilo watts and the pump needed only 0.07 kilo watts and that means we succeeded. We now need to design it locally to meet the local parameters and needs.

What are the likely costs to be incurred if someone was to use this system?

The initial cost would be acquiring the turbines and other auxiliaries because sometimes you need to have a charging system and a set of batteries because you need to store that power somewhere else such that even when there is no wind completely you can use the power stored in the batteries. The cost of turbines varies from site to site. They have a guarantee of up to 30 years.

Is this kind of idea completely new or you derived it from somewhere else?

Very many countries rely on that kind of power system especially the wind alone. We have introduced the hybrid because our wind is actually not consistent. The United Kingdom for example, this year is producing more than 280 mega watts which are even almost more than what we are getting from our hydro.

Who are the other people that you are working on the project with?

The project supervisor is Engineer Dr Benard Kariko and Paul Isaac Musasizi. There are four people working on the project. Most finished (undergrad) but we are looking at the possibility of bringing in those from second and third years to join the project. Before we started the project, there were students ahead of us who assessed the possibility of the project in different sites. Our focus is now to design basing on the recommendations. The one I did was with Louisa Akiror.

How will the project tally with the national demand for electricity?

We cannot produce electricity in very large quantities because we do not have that strong wind like in a particular area. Right now it is working as a standalone system like we have in Nakasongola it’s just for one place. But I think it can be extended if we could put many of them to make a wind firm.

What impact will this project have on the people of Uganda?

We have a problem of electricity in Uganda and the project can benefit mainly people in a rural areas. It will help the person who does not have access to the grid to get electricity and that is what we are looking at.

The cost of the electricity would also go down because if you have been on the national grid and I install a turbine at your place, I think the cost will be cheaper especially if everything is designed locally. But this will apply to middle and small scale users. Those who use heavy power cannot actually use this. If this idea works you will be able to watch television, cook and do anything because what we have designed so far can go up to 400 kilo watts but that can be extrapolated to 1000 kilo watts and you can do a lot of things with that. Actually most of the gadgets at home use less than that.

There are allegations that Uganda’s top brains are not contributing enough to development. How do you react to this?

It’s true that Uganda’s top brains are not contributing to the development of the nation but it has an origin which starts with the lack of government interest. There are so many projects taking place at the faculty of technology but most times there is no funding.

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