Nepalï¿½s Mountain Villages Tap the Power of ï¿½Eternal Snowsï¿½ With Micro-
by Brian Handwerk in Growing Green Jobs on July 20, 2012
Nepalï¿½s soaring, snowy mountain peaks are a source of awe. Theyï¿½re
also a source of clean, life-altering power to the people who live in
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 countryï¿½s limited power grid.
Nepal is a poor nation and its rural inhabitants are unlikely to have
access to electricityï¿½less 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. Itï¿½s 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 Nepalï¿½s 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
But the Government of Nepalï¿½s 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 industryï¿½s 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 countryï¿½s main
grid. ï¿½Even though I live in a remote place the services I get in the
village are better than Kathmandu,ï¿½ one Nepalese villager testified in
a UNDP Nepal produced video describing the project.
Letting the River Run
Large-scale hydro projects arenï¿½t 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 ï¿½run of the riverï¿½
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-hydroï¿½s 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
Nepalï¿½s 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 toolsï¿½as 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
ï¿½Here, there is a computer lab and my teachers use a projector to
teach math, science, and other subjects,ï¿½ he said. ï¿½We use calculators
in computers. At times, we also play games on the computer.ï¿½
Todayï¿½s micro-hydro successes only scratch the surface. The power
source has massive potential in a land where snow and ice cover the
high peaksï¿½and eventually run downhill as electricity-generating
water. The World Bank estimates that only 2 percent of Nepalï¿½s 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 arenï¿½t distributed equally in
Nepalese society. Agencies are striving to ensure that women and
minority groups like the ï¿½untouchableï¿½ Dalit peoples are full
participants in the benefits of these projects, lest they become
divisive and counterproductive within communities of ï¿½havesï¿½ and ï¿½have
But micro-hydroï¿½s benefits seem to far outweigh such concerns and
growth of the industry is moving forward apace. The UNDP estimates
that 15 percent of Nepalï¿½s 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 Himalayasï¿½ eternal snows.
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