19-25 September 2014 #725

Taking power into their own hands

Sunir Pandey

The future of Nepal’s micro-hydro is affected by the spread of the national grid

According to recent figures released by the Alternative Energy Promotion Centre (AEPC), the total installed capacity of small-scale hydroelectric projects in Nepal topped 48 MW this year. If this was a powerplant, it would be the fourth largest in the country.

Out of reach of national transmission lines, rural Nepalis stopped waiting for the government to come to them. They made their own small hydropower plants and managed them through local community groups and cooperatives. A government subsidy of Rs 255,000 per kW produced also spurred communities to take power into their own hands.

As a result, around 2,500 micro-hydro plants of between 5-100kW were installed all over the country in the last 30 years, electrifying 200,000 households in the last 30 years (see chart).

At first, the small capacity plants produced just enough electricity to light up homes. But now, communities have realised the benefits of linking nearby power stations into local grids. In eastern Baglung, for example, seven micro-hydro plants ranging from 9 to 26 kW on the Kalung river are hooked up into a network called Urja Upatyaka (Energy Valley). When the capital of the country suffers 14 hours of power cuts this winter, Baglung will be all lit up. 

If there is equipment failure at one station, the others chip in. And more power means local communities now use electricity not just for lighting, but for small businesses like carpentry, mills, poultry farms, computer centres, irrigation pumps.

“You are only consuming power if you use it for lighting. But when you make money out of it, that is value added, comes closer to exploiting potential,” says Sanjay Sharma, program manager at Regional Centre for Excellence in Micro-hydro which works with the AEPC and USAID to promote local initiatives like in Baglung.

There are said to be at least 14 more sites across the country (see map) where micro-hydros can be networked and hooked up to the national grid to provide another additional 4MW of power.

The Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) was nervous about hooking small producers to the national grid, saying the administrative and logistical costs just weren’t worth the trouble.

The state-run utility has realised that the long-term benefits of rural electrification can’t be counted in just profit and loss, and has now finalised rates for Power Purchase Agreement for dry and wet seasons which would make it attractive for local investors.

The real threat to micro-hydro producers, ironically, is not financial, it is the spread of national transmission lines. In Baglung, for example, locals want to be hooked up to the grid instead of their Urja Upatyaka network. In Dhankuta, the Leguwa Khola micro-hydro station and the Syaure Bhumi micro powerplant were running well until the NEA’s transmission lines arrived. Locals now want to switch to the national system

There are at least 40 other micro-hydro products in the 25kW plus range that are in danger of being shut down because of the arrival of the national grid. Together they produce 4MW of power, and if they were networked and the NEA bought power from them, they would survive and billions in subsidy would not go waste. 

Paradoxically, the reason some rural areas are happy with their local micro-hydro is that connecting to the national grid would mean suffering power cuts.

Read also:

Thinking small, Kunda Dixit

People and power, Anurag Acharya

Transforming power, Dewan Rai

Do it yourself, Govinda Luitel

An alternative current, Kunda Dixit

Small is feasible, Ramyata Limbu

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