Less than half of Nepal’s population has access to the national electric grid, and it may be decades before the network reaches deep into remote, scattered settlements of the northern hill and mountain regions. But the terrain offers an alternative source of energy in the form of hydropower, that can be harnessed not only in super-sized constructions like China’s 22,500 megawatt Three Gorges Dam, but also in comparatively miniscule, “run-of-the-river” turbines better suited to the needs of rural communities.
Over the past four decades, 2,500 micro-hydro plants (ranging from 5 kilowatts to 100 kilowatts in size) have been constructed in Nepal, generating a total of 20 megawatts of electricity. A drizzle in the face of Nepal’s estimated 43,000 megawatts of commercially viable hydropower potential, but these droplets provide electricity to over 200,000 people in remote areas. Neighbouring China has built over 100,000 micro-hydro plants.
These stand-alone hydro plants harness free-flowing energy in streams and rivers to produce continuous, uninterrupted electricity with minimal environmental impact. Each turbine lights up houses, and whips up currents that can support radios, televisions, mobile phones and small machinery. But their supply is often limited to certain hours of the day when demand is at its peak.
To address this constraint, Nepal is now testing a new approach to rural electrification that takes advantage of a landscape dotted with micro-hydro plants and the sluggish extension of the central grid. This new technology connects two or more plants in a locally-controlled distribution system, known as a mini-grid. These decentralised networks can improve the “reliability, quality and availability” of electricity produced by isolated plants, and give communities the option of selling their surplus electricity to the grid when it finally does arrive, explained Bhupendra Shakya, energy expert for the Renewable Energy for Rural Livelihood Programme (RERL), at the Alternative Energy Promotion Centre (AEPC), an autonomous government-agency.
Connecting smaller plants into a larger local network generates more than the sum of its parts. It not only increases the capacity of the system, but also affords consumers more flexibility, explained Bharat Poudel, senior engineer at the AEPC. Currently only about 30% of the energy generated from micro-hydro plants is consumed. But through a mini-grid system, “surplus power from one community can be used by beneficiaries in a different community,” Poudel explained. During times of low demand, fewer plants can run on a rotational basis, without the whole system shutting down. And if one plant breaks down, another can compensate for the loss.
Mini-grids have “the potential to become the most powerful technological approach for accelerated rural electrification” according to a 2011 report published by the Alliance for Rural Electrification (ARE).
In July of last year, the AEPC piloted the first micro-hydro mini-grid system in the western district of Baglung, a remote hilly area, close to a tributary of the Kali Gandaki River. They connected six micro-hydro plants (ranging in capacity from 9 kilowatts to 26 kilowatts) within a distance of 8 kilometres, to form a 100 kilowatt capacity mini-grid. The system serves 1,180 households and is owned by the local community.
Locals have already started to take advantage of the benefits afforded by the system. In the past, electricity was rationed to a few hours of lighting in the mornings and evenings, and households were allotted two-hour slots to run their rice mills. But the electricity available to use was limited. “Before we had no control,” explained Khagaraj Sharma , a resident of Paiyuthanthap village and former secretary of the Mini-grid Construction Committee in Baglung.
Today, with 24-hour access and metres installed in every house, locals have the freedom to choose when and how much electricity to consume. And the price is more affordable; villagers pay US$0.80 a month for 12 units of electricity, down from about US$1 a month. Preliminary findings reveal an increase in consumption from 100 kilowatts to 200 or 300 kilowatts every month, according to Poudel.
The new system is transforming livelihoods. More people are using rice cookers, small saw mills and rice mills, said Sharma. Schools now offer early morning classes for eleventh and twelfth graders and many can now run computers. Some locals have invested in poultry farming that requires lighting through the night. Others recently purchased a chilling vat to store milk.
There are other long-term advantages to mini-grid development that have yet to be realised by locals in Baglung. By pooling electricity into larger units, communities can sell their electricity to the grid, if and when the infrastructure develops. At the moment, when areas are finally connected to the central grid, existing micro-hydro plants are forced to shut down because consumers choose to switch to the cheaper alternative and the Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA), the country’s sole grid operator, is reluctant to purchase electricity from small plants.
11% of constructed micro-hydro plants have already been shut down, according to a review of 11 districts carried out by RERL; and another 44% are now within 10 kilometres of the grid and face a similar fate. “This is a real threat,” warned Shakya. “If ongoing discussions with the NEA and the AEPC are successful, Baglung could be the first community-based input to the grid, selling only electricity generated in excess of local needs. Mini-grids could lead to a reversal of the transfer of power and money, to ultimately benefit the village,” added Shakya. The national grid is currently only 500 metres away from Baglung.
The AEPC has already identified 20 other sites suitable for mini-grid development, based on certain geographical and technical requirements. The organisation believes that mini-grids offer a tiered model of electrification, whereby local grids plug first into regional grids, and eventually national grids.
Making it local
But before this can happen, a few issues raised by the project in Baglung need to be addressed. Local research and development (R&D) needs to mature to reduce dependency on technology and know-how from India; lack of expertise and difficulty transporting equipment through customs delayed the project in Baglung.
Several academic institutions in Nepal have invested in mini-grid research, but “research is still in its nascent stages,” said Shakya. In 2010 Kathmandu University started a three year mini-grid project, funded by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD) and in collaboration with the private engineering company. The project’s mandate is to develop and test commercially viable products, but their work to date has been primarily lab-based.
Local R&D could eventually reduce the cost of mini-grids. The project in Baglung cost over US$169,000. “We are developing products at very low-cost, using components that are available locally and easy to use,” explained Vivek Bhandari, a researcher for the project.
But the real challenges are social rather than technical: “the bottlenecks for the sustainable success of mini-grids are not the technologies, but financing, management, business models, maintenance, sustainable operations, and socioeconomic conditions. Each community presents a cluster of characteristics and interests which will define the best technical solution according to local financial, social, and environmental terms,” explains the ARE report.
Even in Baglung “there are lots of managerial issues that we need to resolve,” admitted Shakya. For example, under the current payment model smaller plants are running at a loss. And Sher Singh Bhat, director of the NEA’s power trade department, suggested that decisions around electricity pricing are more complex than technical glitches.
Ultimately, communities need to be convinced of the advantages of mini-grid technology, especially if they are expected to accept possible blackouts during implementation, explained Bhandari. But the mini-grid has been welcomed in Baglung. Word has already spread to other communities, some of whom are eager to take part in the next pilot, hoping to cash in on the new technology.
Smriti Malapatty is a freelance environment and science journalist based in Kathmandu, Nepal.
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