Powering the Top of the World

This article accompanies a documentary film made by the author during a trip to Nepal in the Summer of 2012. The film is available online at poweringthetopoftheworld.wordpress.com.

Amongst the Mountain passes of the Himalayas, a huge challenge is being faced. Draped over the slopes and plains lying at the base of the tallest mountains in the world,Nepal is facing a conundrum which has faced every nation on earth and been the stumbling block of some of history’s greatest civilisations. How to provide energy for a growing and rapidly urbanising population?

Nepal is blessed with tremendous rivers which snake their way through the hills, down into the great expanse of the Indian subcontinent. Yet the power of these waters has been allowed to rush past the people of Nepal and the huge potential that these rivers hold has yet to be tapped.

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Huge waterfalls cascade down the slopes of the Himalayas.

Communities living high in the mountains of Nepal have long seen the potential power of the thundering waterfalls that they live beside, and for centuries have taken advantage of nature’s energy. Small watermills, or Ghats have long made life easier for the farming communities of Nepal, grinding their grains. Such ingenuity has progressed into the modern age and communities have harvested the power of water to provide for the modern needs of families. Electric lighting and satellite TV have crept into the lives of the Nepalese through almost 3,000 Community hydro projects that dot the mountainous landscape of Northern Nepal.

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Satellite TV is a common sight even in the most isolated mountain valleys.

Yet, such projects are not as perfect as they may seem at first. With few uses for the power other than lighting and TV for a few hours in the evening, the economics of these systems are very difficult to justify. ”We need new technology to increase the end use of micro-hydro in the villages”  suggests Jeewan Prasad Thanju, a civil engineer at e-RG Nepal, a hydropower consultancy, ”if technology is available which can use the power for long periods, then it will be profitable”.

However, where uses have been found, they can quickly outstrip supply. Jung Bahadur Gurung, the operator at Chhomrong Community Hydro Project sees the other side to this issue. This micro-turbine powers a small settlement in the Chhomrong Khola valley of the Annapurna Himalayas. Trekkers have allowed this village to prosper and now guesthouses dot the hillside. “Since people have been able to afford appliances, we constantly have to turn the power off, because we can’t meet everyone’s needs.” Yet the village doesn’t have the money to build a larger plant, and the geography makes transporting any bigger equipment into the village very difficult. On these paths, not even donkeys are able to travel, meaning all supplies are carried by foot.

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Jung Bahadur Gurung at  the Chhomrong micro-hydro plant.

Higher up the mountain, Man Prassad Grg has bigger issues to deal with. The small hydro plant he built himself at the base camp to Machapuchare peak frequently breaks and only operates in the summer at the best of times.  “For six months the pipes stay frozen, so there’s no power and the pipes crack. Steel pipes would be better but there’s no way we can transport them up here.”

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Man Prassad Grg at Machapuchare base camp.

As the rivers of the Himalayas flow down into the great plains of the Terai, it passes communities unable to tap into the energy of this great mass of flowing water. Although unable to build hydro plants, the flat terrain has made it easier for the government to provide electricity from the national grid to these areas. In a small shabby office in downtown Kathmandu, Dev Sharma Poudel, a director at the Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA), explains the issues facing the country, to the background of horns blaring and engines revving on the crowded streets outside.

“If we don’t have electricity we can’t expect economic growth… So we are trying to build [hydropower] capacity fast by giving licenses to private companies”. But it’s been a slow start in trying to encourage these companies to invest. Most Nepalese enterprises have little capital to invest in the huge upfront cost of hydropower. Even more challenging is how they can recoup their investment whilst following the government’s demands on how electricity should be charged.

The Nepali government wants to bring affordable electricity to as many people as possible and so demands that hydropower developers give the lowest cost electricity to the poorest and therefore smallest consumers. This is the opposite of how most countries design their electricity market; with the largest consumers normally getting the cheapest rate. This conventional tariff structure allows the high marginal cost of connecting an additional small consumer to be compensated for, whilst encouraging larger consumers to consume more, where the marginal costs for the electricity supplier are low. Therefore, the tariff structure being imposed by the government in order to bring electricity to the largest number of people is destroying the business case for many developers which means plants are not built and no-one gets electricity.

More recently a new idea has been floated. Just across the border in India there are many companies eager to supply the huge shortages being faced in the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. These companies have the money and resources to build new plants, but the vast majority of the power that these new dams will generate will literally pass over the heads of the Nepali’s and into India, leaving many Nepali communities with a sense of injustice.

Power Lines

Pylons stretch over Nepal’s mountainous terrain.

Something drastically needs to be done. Nepal has a huge trade deficit, not helped by the need to import oil from India to power the multitude of diesel generators which people own to cope with daily power cuts. As Mr Poudel sees it: “you may have heard that in Jumla and Jumsum we have apple trees, but… we are importing Indian apples and Chinese apples. Why?”

Given the urgency of the situation, he argues that something must be done immediately. “If we can’t fund hydro ourselves, it’s better to allow private companies to develop them, because after 25 years all these projects will be given back to the Nepali government. It will be a big asset. Now the rivers are just flowing…”

But many others believe the development of huge hydropower projects by Indian investors will wreak havoc with local ecosystems whilst local communities will see few benefits. Some also worry about Nepali politicians being manipulated by neighbouring countries over these large financial investments. A worry which is particularly pertinent in a country that ranks towards the bottom of the world corruption index.

Nepal lies at a tipping point in its energy sector. Will the country continue to languish in a state of constant blackouts and costly alternatives, or will it be able to make the most of the resources it has, and, in the words of one hydropower professional, be able to create “Water Money”?

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