Nepali Times
Too much, or too little water

Yet another year of winter drought, a colder-than-usual spring and the predictable has occurred: electricity shortfalls leading to power cuts.

Most of Nepal's hydropower generation comes from 'run-of-the-river' schemes which use the flow of the river to turn turbines to generate electricity. This means that if the water level in the river goes down, so does electricity production.

The only way to get around this is to store water in reservoirs, but our only dam is Kulekhani I and II, which is situated in a stream that only has enough water to generate 90MW of power during daily peak hours.

After the 144MW Kali Gandaki hydropower project came into full scale operation last year, the government had trumpeted that load shedding had become a matter of past in Nepal, and officials were even boasting about exporting electricity to India. But a month into the dry season, Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) has already declared a week-long power cut lasting two hours every day beginning 13 March.

The nationwide power cut is scheduled in such a way that each area of the country will have four hours power outage in a week, two in the morning and two in the evening. So, why the load shedding even after the national grid has the installed capacity of almost 600MW?

The falling water levels on snow-fed rivers have reduced the capacity of powerplants like Khimti, for instance, by two-thirds to less than 20MW. But to make matters worse, NEA has decided to shut down the 70MW Marsyangdi power plant for maintenace just at the exact moment when the power demand is at its peak and supply is at its lowest. Marsyangdi was damaged by landslides and flash floods last monsoon.

"We are clearing the river bed where a lot of boulders were deposited during the floods," an engineer at NEA's Load Dispatch Centre told us. But, why in the dry season when the capacity of all other run of river plants has gone down? "Because this is the right time when we can make the corrections with minimum load shedding," the engineer said.

Despite misgivings about large dams, experts say the time may have come for Nepal to contemplate a large storage project to meet power shortfalls during early spring when the snows have not started melting and there is no rainfall. They say the best option would be to turn the Australian joint venture West Seti project in western Nepal from an export-oriented power project into one supplying the domestic market when it comes on stream in seven years.

NEA officials say that as long as all except one of their powerplants are run-of-river types, power cuts will be a regular feature in the future as demand rises and power supply is concentrated during the monsoon months.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)