Skip to main content

Reliable and sustainable micro-hydropower in Nepal

Rolling hills of Baglung District

Despite massive potential to generate electricity through large scale hydropower, Nepal often faces power cuts and the national grid only reaches around 65% of the population. Much of the non-grid connected population live in rural, hilly and mountainous areas where grid extension is difficult and costly. Micro-hydropower plants (MHPs), which deliver up to 100kW of electrical power, extract water from rivers and use it to drive a generator before returning the water to the same river further downstream. These systems can provide electricity for lighting and productive end uses that can vastly improve people’s quality of life. Since the 1970s, micro-hydro turbines have been manufactured in Nepal. Now there are around 2,500 MHPs installed across Nepal.


When these systems break or run poorly it has an adverse effect on the quality of people’s lives. Through my research, I am hoping to find methods to improve the reliability and sustainability of MHPs in Nepal. The aim of this project was to see how well systems were maintained and interview the people who run, manage and rely on hydropower plants. I hoped that interviews would help me to understand some of the technical and social challenges that MHPs face.  Whilst in Nepal, I was working with a Nepali NGO called the People, Energy and Environment Development Association (PEEDA) who helped me to identify sites, arrange visits and conduct interviews.

A micro-hydropower plant

During my time in Nepal, Prem Karki (from PEEDA) and I visited a total of 17 sites in the neighbouring districts of Baglung and Gulmi. Prem and I spent 12 days in the field, making our way from one site to the next via bumpy jeep rides and on foot. Nepal’s hills make it suitable for hydropower but also make travelling complicated. Many of the roads we travelled on were unpaved and we saw lots of places where landslides had damaged roads during the monsoon. This showed us how difficult it is to move equipment and materials when plants are under construction. At each site, our visual assessment took us on some nerve jangling walks along canals that snaked around cliff edges to reach the intakes. Prem was responsible for interviewing the plant operator, management representative and consumer at each site so we could understand how plants were maintained, managed and their importance to beneficiaries. The local people were very helpful and interested by our work. We were often given free meals and sometimes even a place to stay!

A winding canal
I was able to collect a large amount of information which I am still processing digitally and mentally! In general, I found that micro-hydro sites are often impressive feats of engineering which can make a big impact on people’s lives by powering homes, businesses and services. In challenging environments where the only means of transportation is manpower, the hard work of local people has led to their construction. Several times, we crawled through hand chiselled caves made solely for a hydro project’s canal. The impact of the projects was clear to see. Every interview respondent said that connection to an MHP had made their life easier.

Furthermore, the micro-hydro projects are invaluable to communities as a whole; they power workplaces, shops, health posts and mobile phone masts. In the town of Burtibang, with a population of around 10,000, every home and business is powered by electricity from micro-hydro projects.

This dependence on micro-hydropower makes its reliability very important. I found the quality of maintenance very variable. Some sites were well cared for with an evident daily effort to keep the plant running as best as possible. Other plants had little evidence of regular maintenance and were showing signs of deterioration. Promisingly, I found that sites with formally trained operators tended to be better maintained than those without.

In terms of sustainability, there was a good standard of management. Energy meters allowed accurate measurement of electricity consumption so that consumers were charged according to their use. Consumers are typically given a short window in which to pay and fined for late payment. At most sites, managers said that there was sufficient money collected for the operation of the plant and maintenance costs.

To maintain reliability and sustainability, there are a range of technical and social issues that MHPs must overcome. There were common technical issues in design. Many turbines were leaking, and plant operators mentioned bearing replacement as one of the most common issues. We also saw a big variation in the quality of  installations particularly for the  civil works. It is disappointing that despite the massive effort expended in construction, some features are not fit for purpose. Socially, we found four sites where the original operator had moved abroad for work meaning the present operator had not been trained. Plant managers also commented on the increasing demand from consumers resulting in pressure on operators to deliver more power. These issues develop for social reasons but result in problems which can harm the reliability of the system. 
A micro-hydropower turbine

In my further research, I intend to work closely with a turbine manufacturer during the design, manufacture and installation of a micro-hydro project. I hope to identify opportunities to implement greater quality control to prevent the occurrence of the technical issues mentioned. By working in collaboration with governmental and non-governmental organisations in Nepal, I would like to find innovative ways to ensure the longevity of MHPs. As Nepal develops, the role of micro-hydro will change but I believe it still has an important role to play in rural electrification. 

----------------------------------
This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Joe Butchers, a PhD student from the Electrical Energy Management Group at the University of Bristol.
Joe Butchers

Popular posts from this blog

Powering the economy through the engine of Smart Local Energy Systems

How can the Government best retain key skills and re-skill and up-skill the UK workforce to support the recovery and sustainable growth? This summer the UK’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) requested submission of inputs on Post-Pandemic Economic Growth. The below thoughts were submitted to the BEIS inquiry as part of input under the EnergyREV project . However, there are points raised here that, in the editing and summing up process of the submission, were cut out, hence, this blog on how the UK could power economic recovery through Smart Local Energy Systems (SLES). 1. Introduction: Factors, principles, and implications In order to transition to a sustainable and flourishing economy from our (post-)COVID reality, we must acknowledge and address the factors that shape the current economic conditions. I suggest to state the impact of such factors through a set of driving principles for the UK’s post-COVID strategy. These factors are briefly explained belo

IncrEdible! How to save money and reduce waste

The new academic year is a chance to get to grips with managing your student loan and kitchen cupboards. Over lockdown the UK wasted a third less food than we usually would. This is brilliant, as normally over 4.5 million tonnes of edible food is wasted from UK homes every year. For students, it’s even higher. The average cost of food waste per student per week is approximately £5.25 - that's about £273 per year !  It’s not just our bank accounts that are affected by food waste – it’s our planet too. The process of growing, making, distributing, storing and cooking our food uses masses of energy, fuel and water. It generates 30% of the world’s CO₂ greenhouse gas emissions. The same amount of CO₂ as 4.6 million return flights from London to Perth, Australia! So it makes sense to keep as much food out of the bin as possible, start wasting less and saving more.  Start the new term with some food waste busting, budget cutting, environment loving habits! Here’s five easy ways to reduce

Farming in the Páramos of Boyacá: industrialisation and delimitation in Aquitania

Labourers harvest ‘cebolla larga’ onion in Aquitania. Image credit: Lauren Blake. In October and November 2019 Caboteer  Dr Lauren Blake  spent time in Boyacá, Colombia, on a six-week fieldtrip to find out about key socio-environmental conflicts and the impacts on the inhabitants of the páramos, as part of the historical and cultural component of her research project, POR EL Páramo . Background information about the research can be found in the earlier blog on the project website . Descending down the hill in the bus from El Crucero, the pungent smell of cebolla larga onion begins to invade my nose. The surrounding land transforms into plots of uniform rows of onion tops at various stages of growth, some mostly brown soil with shoots poking out along the ridges, others long, bushy and green. Sandwiched between the cloud settled atop the mountainous páramos and the vast, dark blue-green Lake Tota, all I can see and all I can smell is onion production. Sprinklers are scattered around, dr