Science - April 22, 2004

Using hydro-electricity takes more than just a turbine

The vast majority of the Nepalese population live in mountainous rural areas and have no access to electricity. In many areas, however there are irrigation schemes with canals, which in theory could also easily be used to generate electricity with small scale hydro-electricity turbines. According to new PhD graduate Amreeta Regmi, however, the technology doesn’t work for the people and local politics don’t make things better either.

The four percent of rural people who do have access to electricity, get it from micro-hydel systems. These are small turbines that often make use of existing canals in irrigation systems. The small turbines can generate enough energy for up to twenty households. Micro-hydel systems in Nepal produce a total of 13.6 megawatts, but 77 % of the turbines do not work properly.

The problem is that the turbines are designed from a hydrological perspective only, explains Regmi, who made four case studies in the central hills of Nepal. Other aspects of design, like an eye for future management and meeting the actual needs of people, are often neglected. If local people are to use and maintain the turbines properly, they will need much more training. And that makes it a more expensive source of energy than many realise.

Another problem is that introduction of the technology brings a new economic system with it as well. People have to pay for electricity, and fees need to be collected. This is done by local elites, who often take advantage of the situation and collect more for their own benefit. Regmi concludes that proper use of the potential of micro-hydel systems requires, as she calls it, a more ‘democratic design’. Not only should the people the technology is aimed at have more influence in the physical design and adaptation of the technology. The users should also have more say in the way local government is linked to the technology and how fees are collected. Management should be discussed and implemented at a local level, and not be predetermined in Kathmandu.

To give more rural people access to electricity, a better option would be to increase the number of people connected to the national grid, Regmi says. If the real costs of micro-hydel design are taken into account, connecting more people to the grid might be cheaper. The irony, she says, is that Nepal exports its surplus electricity to India, which is generated by large-scale hydro-electricity plants, while the majority of its own population is deprived of electricity.

Amreeta Regmi received her PhD on 19 April 2004. She was supervised by Professor Linden Vincent.

Joris Tielens