Nepal’s soaring, snowy mountain peaks are a source of awe. They’re also a source of clean, life-altering power to the people who live in their shadows.
The small Himalayan nation is promoting micro-hydro plants at the village level to produce renewable electricity, and green jobs, for citizens living far off the country’s limited power grid.
Nepal is a poor nation and its rural inhabitants are unlikely to have access to electricity—less than 1/3rd of them do, according to the United Nations Develeopment Program. Expansion of the conventional power grid is unlikely in the near future. It’s already so strained that power outages are common in urban centers, and major resources would be needed to connect remote communities in mountainous terrain.
Meanwhile Nepal’s electric demand is growing at some 7 percent a year. Those without power suffer health problems from cooking with dirty fuels and a lack of medical facilities, limited educational opportunities, and stagnant economic growth. Rural residents have long burned biomass, dung that might have been used as crop-boosting fertilizers or trees, the loss of which causes erosion and produces carbon emissions.
But the Government of Nepal’s Alternative Energy Promotion Centre (AEPC) is administering a micro-hydro program aimed at building community-operated plants that can produce up to 100 kilowatts of power. (Even the smallest conventional hydro dams product 100 times that much). International organizations including the World Bank, and United Nations Development Program (UNDP) help fund the program under the auspices of Renewable Energy for Rural Livelihood (RERL), which aims to amplify earlier successes in bringing small hydro power to hundreds of people, village by village.
The Nepal Micro Hydropower Development Association, an umbrella organization that represents 500-odd private firms currently in the business of providing micro-hydro services in Nepal, estimates that since the industry’s earliest beginnings in the 1960s some 2,200 micro-hydro plants have been put into place that now provide electricity for some 200,000 households.
They are sometimes able to do so more reliably than the country’s main grid. “Even though I live in a remote place the services I get in the village are better than Kathmandu,” one Nepalese villager testified in a UNDP Nepal produced video describing the project.
Letting the River Run
Large-scale hydro projects aren’t always as green as they seem, according to many critics. They flood lands and wreck riverine habitats.
But micro-hydro plants basically just divert flowing river water, with no significant dams, and use the forces of gravity and falling water to spin turbines that generate power before churning the water back into the river for its journey downstream. In these “run of the river” systems water is channeled off through small canals, stored briefly in a settling tank to separate sediment, then dropped through a steep pipeline that delivers it into a turbine. The juice produced by the turning turbine is wired directly to local users.
The 323 operational RERL facilities alone now create more than 600 full-time equivalent jobs and about 2,600 people have been technically trained on how to operate a facility. But micro-hydro’s employment impact goes further and includes specialized training to help spread electric access benefits throughout the community. Under the program more than 34,000 people, including 15,000 women, have been trained in larger efforts to develop capacity on renewable energy, manage local micro-hydro units and cooperatives, and initiate other environmentally related activities.
Nepal’s micro-hydro ventures are managed by community organizations and all residents are urged to participate and help maintain the systems, educate others in their use, and stoke the growth of other opportunities provided by a reliable access to power. Shops, cottage manufacturing industries, grain mills, restaurants, carpentry shops, pump irrigation, and countless other ventures have spread the economic benefits of initial investment in renewable micro-hydro power.
Other aspects of life have also dramatically improved, many villagers say. Communication can be a challenge in areas where distances may be measured in days walked. Radio, internet, and telephones have alleviated these problems considerably. Medical facilities are also better able to treat people locally and offer a much wider range of essential health services.
Schools have benefited from modern learning tools—as well as simple lighting for study. Tul Bahadur Thapa, a grade 3 student at Shree Tribhuvan secondary school In Kharbang, western Nepal, told UNDP officials about the advantages of his move to this micro-hydropowered school.
“Here, there is a computer lab and my teachers use a projector to teach math, science, and other subjects,” he said. “We use calculators in computers. At times, we also play games on the computer.”
Today’s micro-hydro successes only scratch the surface. The power source has massive potential in a land where snow and ice cover the high peaks—and eventually run downhill as electricity-generating water. The World Bank estimates that only 2 percent of Nepal’s micro-hydro potential has been developed so far and that the total supply from micro-hydro and larger dams alike could reach 83,000 megawatts.
Challenges to Micro-Hydro
But even as the practice grows there are problems with which to contend. Costs can be steep for impoverished communities. Foreign and domestic grant monies for the projects are provided by RERL and managed through Community Energy Funds established by each Micro Hydropower Facility Group. But communities are responsible for covering up to 50 percent of the project costs.
Loans are issued to poor households or business people wishing to use power for revenue-producing activities. Modest fees are also charged for electrical use and returned to help cover project costs. Those who are unable to pay or secure loans can contribute in kind or donate labor like canal cleaning and repairing.
And as elsewhere in the world gains aren’t distributed equally in Nepalese society. Agencies are striving to ensure that women and minority groups like the “untouchable” Dalit peoples are full participants in the benefits of these projects, lest they become divisive and counterproductive within communities of “haves” and “have nots.”
But micro-hydro’s benefits seem to far outweigh such concerns and growth of the industry is moving forward apace. The UNDP estimates that 15 percent of Nepal’s electricity will be generated from micro- and mini-hydro (less than 1,000 kW) plants by the end of 2012. And the agency also estimates that each new micro-hydro system built creates 40 new businesses, putting Nepalis to work at building a sustainable economy with green energy from the Himalayas’ eternal snows.