Micro-hydropower: Providing sustainable energy to rural communities in Nepal

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Joe Butchers, a PhD student in the Electrical Energy Management Group, worked to provide electricity to rural communities, via the use of abundant hydroelectric sources in the local area.

Nepal’s mountains and monsoon rains provide it with massive potential for hydropower. However, slow economic development has meant that only a small amount of this potential has been utilised and just 65% of the population is connected to the national grid.

Until recently, regulated power cuts or ‘load shedding’ were a part of daily life. In rural areas, the slow expansion of the national grid means many people rely on micro-hydropower plants (MHPs) to provide electricity.
An MHP diverts a small amount of water from a river and then passes it through a turbine, generating enough power for up to a thousand homes. The water is then returned to the same river further downstream. As there is no dam and the quantity of water extracted is small, there is minimal environmental impact. This technology has been used in Nepal for the last 50 years and the turbines are manufactured and installed by small companies based in the country. During their construction, the local community will provide labour to build the civil works and once a turbine is installed, the operation and management of the plant becomes their responsibility.

Until recently, regulated power cuts or ‘load shedding’ were a part of daily life.

A focus of my research is understanding the technical, social and economic problems that can threaten the reliability and sustainability of plants. When a problem occurs, it has a significant impact on people lives. They can be left without electricity for homes, businesses, health centres and schools. In order to understand how and why problems occur, I visited 17 sites in the districts of Baglung and Gulmi. Working with the People, Energy and Environment Development Association (www.peeda.net), we made site inspections and interviewed operators, managers and consumers at all of the sites.

One of the sites in question

In most cases, the MHPs provided a reliable supply of electricity. Plants were well managed with good systems in place to collect money. Consumers have electricity meters in their homes which are checked on a monthly basis. They are then usually given a 5 day period to pay or they will incur a small fine. Almost all the consumers were happy with their electricity connection in their homes. People commented that domestic lighting makes cooking, studying and socialising at night easier and light bulbs are much brighter and safer than the kerosene lamps that they used to use.

Away from the home, electricity provides opportunities for livelihood improvement by powering businesses like mills, workshops and chicken farms. There are also significant social benefits to the whole community by powering schools, health clinics, telecom towers and even a cinema. Whilst sites were managed well, the reliability of plants is threatened by poor maintenance and technical problems. I found that sites with operators who had received formal training were better maintained.


Photo by Giuseppe Mondì / Unsplash

It is common for Nepalis to seek work abroad and in these cases the new operators had not been trained. A lack of maintenance results in increased downtime and additional costs to repair or replace damaged parts. At some sites, managers said that they could face a shortfall when trying to pay for repairs. This can leave beneficiaries with a reduced supply or without electricity at all.

Micro-hydropower is valuable in providing developmental benefits to rural communities. The electricity it provides improves domestic life and improves opportunities to make a living. Whilst most plants are well managed, there are some technical and maintenance issues that can threaten the reliability of plants. By working to find solutions to these problems, micro-hydropower can continue to drive social and economic change throughout Nepal.

Joe Butchers is a PhD student in the Electrical Energy Management Group (www.bristol.ac.uk/engineering/research/em) at the University of Bristol. This project was funded by the Cabot Institute (http://www.bristol.ac.uk/cabot/).

*Featured and article image: Epigram/ Joe Butchers joe.butchers@bristol.ac.uk *


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