Small is bright – Rural electrification

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    Nepal’s electricity supply is unreliable, expensive, and inadequate. Despite having a theoretical hydroelectric potential of 83 GW, Nepal has harnessed only about 800 MW of electricity. This failure to utilize existing capacity and subsequent under-electrification can be attributed to a number of factors, including but not limited to high transmission and distribution losses, piecemeal expansion of national grid, corruption, high cost of power purchase agreements, and inefficiencies of Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA). 

    Moreover, only 5 percent of the rural populace has access to electricity from the national grid. Imposing mountains, irregular terrains, and limited resources have been impeding the construction of large power plants and transmission grids in these areas where more than four-fifth of the national population resides. This has left the rural inhabitants with two options: rely on biomass burning, which has a high health and environmental risk, or explore other local means of energy generation like micro hydropower (MH) plants or Solar Home Systems (SHS). 

    MH is a small-scale hydropower that can generate up to 100 KW of electricity. The abundance of fast-flowing streams, requirement of less infrastructure and investment compared to larger power plants, minimal government involvement, and limited impact on environment have made MH plants one of the best options for rural electrification. 

    Although the concept of MH plants dates back to 1970s, it was the establishment of the Alternative Energy Promotion Center (AEPC) in 1996 and the assistance of United Nations Development Program (UNDP) that really helped the expansion of MH plants. Since then, over 1,000 isolated MH plants have been built in 52 districts, including some of the most remote and penurious areas, bringing this renewable energy to nearly half a million people. 

    The role of electricity in improving the quality community life is evident to all. For example, introduction of the 75 KW MH plant in the village of Dagatundada in Baglung district some seven years ago has opened up new prospects for the locals. The local health clinic has improved with the addition of X-ray machines, microscopes and vaccine refrigerators; a 40-watt licensed radio station has been established with the broadcast reach of thousands of people; constant electricity has enabled the growth of small soap manufacturing workshops; among other benefits. 

    Similarly, the town of Darbang in Myagdi district has witnessed industries like metal workshop, poultry farm, furniture manufacturers spring up in the last five years, after 51 KW Ruma Khola MH plant came into operation in 2009. Likewise, residents of Karbang, a small village in western Nepal, have cultivated the electricity generated from the local MH plant to operate welding shops and cell-phone repair business, run ice-cream parlors, and power the classrooms. 

    Despite such huge prospects, the expansion of MH plants in Nepal has been limited in scope and the sustainability of the prevailing ones is still questionable. There are still about a dozen other districts with energy problems which make MH plants viable alternatives but the possibility has not been explored yet. This can be attributed to ineffectiveness of local/national electrical boards, inadequate or misused funding, and lack of transportation. 

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    AEPC, Ministry of Physical Infrastructure and Transport, and other related government bodies should work together to ensure that lack of one infrastructure doesn’t inhibit the development of another. Besides, a transparent autonomous body should be established under direct supervision of national/international organizations providing financial assistance to ensure proper channelization of funds. 

    Moreover, owing to shortage of manpower with technical expertise, and incapability of local managers to handle billing/financial issues, even a minor technical glitch can result in discontinuation of energy production. To avoid this, local/national service centers offering maintenance and support facilities need to be established or extensive training must be provided in operation and maintenance, fault identification, technical repairs, bill collection, and book-keeping to local operators and managers. Also, official guidelines must be developed for tariff setting to avoid discrepancy in billing rates of isolated grids. Additionally, trainings for local populace on entrepreneurial initiatives like opening a mobile phone store, a photo store, a hair salon, electric mills, money transfer services and poultry farming should be provided for income generation, which in turn can ensure financial sustainability of the plants. 

    Furthermore, there is an efficiency concern, in terms of energy production and management, associated with the isolated MH plants. Even if an existing MH plant is locally sustainable, the energy requirement from entrepreneurs/villagers is expected to gradually go up. A potential solution can be the expansion of two or more nearby MH units into a mini-grid improving the reach, capacity, efficiency and reliability of isolated units. This expansion of isolated plants into a larger unit will not only give communities the option of trading surplus electricity among themselves but, in the long run, will also make the extension of local grids to the national grid smoother.

    This comprehensive expansion of small, isolated and local electric plants in the once-dark regions of Nepal may pave the way for an end to energy shortage while fostering industrial growth, providing opportunity for technological know-how, encouraging entrepreneurship, uplifting our economic status, as well as improving the living standard of the people. Moreover, this will lead to distributed development, discouraging overcrowding in urban cities in search of better education, health services and employment opportunities. There must thus be joint effort from the government, concerned NGOs and INGOs, and local communities to make the socio-economic, political and regulatory environment more conducive for small and medium hydro-projects. 

    The author “
    SUMAN KHAKUREL” is an engineer currently working in Canada 167suman@gmail.com