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Big engagement with small power

Generating electricity to raise economic profile

Aditya BATRA

05 / 2010

Away from the grid, villages have been generating their own electricity for decades in Nepal. The country is the developing world’s petri dish for experiments on small-scale renewables. Generous international donors have supported biomass (biogas, improved cooking stoves and biofuels); mini- and micro-hydro power; improved water mills; solar (photovoltaic and heating systems).

Power from wind is still in its infancy. Some like to joke that in Nepal the wind behaves like bureaucrats, who start work at 10 but leave by four; it is ineffective because most rural residents use electricity at night.

Each technology has its own programme in place, is backed by particular donors and has a raison d’être influenced by technology, cost, terrain and financial health of communities.

To reduce overlaps and streamline funding and implementation of these programmes, the government created the Alternative Energy Promotion Centre (AEPC) in 1996. The nodal body manages the well-capitalized rural energy fund, with money pooled by leading international donors, and administers the delivery of subsidy to projects. AEPC accounts for 90 per cent of the budget of the environment ministry.

The diminutive technologies—some as small as 5 kva hydel power plants, or for instance the ‘family hydro’ being developed by the ngo CRT /Nepal, which generates up to 60W for a household—have nonetheless had a big effect across rural Nepal. AEPC data shows that off-grid electricity reaches 3 per cent of Nepal’s rural people.

Narayan Prasad Chaulagain, AEPC executive director, stresses the mandate of his institution. “It’s not just about electricity; it’s about addressing the livelihood needs in rural areas, where 95 per cent of Nepal’s poor live.”

Energy=social capital

In Nepal, rural electrification was always a development deed, with poverty-reduction, good governance and social and environmental sustainability as the goals. The UNDP-supported Rural Energy Development Programme (REDP) was the harbinger of this approach. In its third phase now, the programme has installed 285 micro hydro plants, with a cumulative capacity of 4,453 kW, covering close to 50,000 of the total 3.6 million households in Nepal.

Although there is a definite bias toward micro-hydro in REDP —some mock this as “bullock cart technology”—solar photovoltaic systems for isolated households, biogas and improved cooking stoves are the other energy choices it promotes.

“We don’t promote technology; we work to alleviate poverty,” said Kiran Man Singh, the national programme manager. REDP’s holistic approach helps build social capital that encourages communities to match their environmental, economic and social goals with the appropriate energy choices, and the wherewithal to manage such systems once the project is operational.

“We don’t build a turbine for them, we teach them how to build one,” Man Singh said. “And we don’t spend a paisa on them; we facilitate the process. Our motto is all must have access to electricity and have the ability to pay for it.”

But small-scale, off-grid power generation was not always the focus of the government. It was the maelstrom of civil society protests in the 1990s over the then world’s most expensive hydropower project, the World Bank-backed 402 MW Arun III, that forced the government to re-evaluate cheaper, small-scale, hydel and other off-grid renewable power plants run by communities in remote villages. Arun III was scrapped in 1995 (See ‘Power struggle’, Down To Earth, May 31, 1995).

Today’s crippling power crisis evokes much the same debate. There are strident calls for large hydro projects custom-built for export of power to India. Some are scrambling to find ways to retain the fulsome gains made by small off-grid community-run systems threatened by consumers who want to connect with the grid—be it at their own cost.

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