Renewable Safari Part IV – Big Hydro, Little Hydro and the Journey to the Centre of the Earth

We left Dhaubadi so late last night that we didn’t make it to the guesthouse at Kali Gandaki as planned and had to make a last minute stop over in Butwal. Butwal is a horrible place and we stayed in one of the worst hotels I have ever had the displeasure of staying in. I’m not normally a squeamish person, but I tried to touch things as little as possible and didn’t dare eat in the hotel restaurant as I was sure I would spend the rest of the trip on the toilet if I did! Butwal is a transit town made almost entirely of concrete. From the roof of our hotel, you could watch the sewage flow through the half open sewer and admire the rubble that littered the side of every street.

This really is Butwal portrayed in the best possible light. It doesn’t do justice to the brutal concrete wasteland that it really is.

It was here that I had a revelation. I had been wondering for a few years what real benefit electrifying remote communities actually brings. Sure, electric light is great and mobile phones are pretty useful too, but are TVs and radios really that necessary for development? Rural to urban migration is a huge problem in many developing countries as people leave their homes in the country to look for work and ultimately a higher standard of living in the city. Therefore part of the reason why people leave their picturesque villages in the mountains must be to get access to basic energy services, such as those listed above. If we as engineers are able to provide a way for them to have access to the same energy services in their communities as they find in the cities through the provision of renewable off-grid power systems, then we are doing our bit to stem the flow of rural to urban mass migration and to therefore mitigate the problems that overcrowding creates. If people want to stay in the communities in which they have grown up, then they should be able to without having to put up with a significantly lower quality of life.

A beautiful rural community

After leaving the ‘glorious’ Hotel Royal, I saw my first piece of renewable energy graffiti! Drawn on the ground was a picture of wind turbines connected to light bulbs with the inscription “Nation First”. Corruption is a huge problem in Nepal and one of the main reasons why a country with some of the best renewable resources in the world is struggling to make enough electricity.

My faith in mankind was restored by renewable energy graffiti

We’re all happy to leave Butwal and in a few more hours we arrive at Kali Gandaki hydroelectric plant. During the war, the hydro damns were very heavily guarded as if a bomb went off on top of one, then not only would the country have even less electricity, but also all of the communities living downstream would be flooded. Today photos are still not allowed on the tops of the damns, which are military controlled areas, however the plant manager is very uncooperative and despite having permission to film at the damn from the big cheese at the NEA, seems convinced that we will be happy with just looking around. Fortunately the two engineers who actually show us around are very helpful and we’re allowed to film the powerhouse and damn from outside. Nepal’s civil war ended with the replacement of the king by Maoists in 2007.

Its big….its really big!

The plant is working at full capacity when we go inside and the deep vibrations coming from the humungous penstock pipes indicate the huge amount of power produced here (>100MW). In fact, the pipes are so big that you could comfortably drive a truck inside each one.

A much smaller run-of-the river hydro plant that seemed much more complementary to its environment rather than just trying to conquer it.

We go straight on to Andi Khola hydro plant, which like Kali Gandaki, is a run-of-the-river development. This means that it doesn’t dry up the river completely, like it did at Khulikani, and therefore the environmental consequences are much lower. The trade off though is that there is no storage of water for the dry season and peak power is reduced. The Andi Khola development starts with a very pretty sweeping wier, behind which is an inlet to the penstock pipe. Water then travels horizontally for a number of kilometres through the mountain before reaching a point vertically above the powerhouse, where it drops 236m into to turbines. This is where we went next.

The centre of the Earth?

A ten minute ride in a rather rickety lift took us down to the powerhouse, with the temperature rising steadily. By the time we reached the bottom we were dripping with sweat, but as the narrow lift shaft opened up into a wide cavern filled with hydroelectric generators pumping out heat, you can see why! It felt like we were at the centre of the earth – the thermometer on the wall read 50 degrees C. Currently, the three Norwegian-built pelton wheels were pumping out 4MW, however they were in the process of upgrading them to 9MW by doubling the inlet flow rate. I can’t even imagine how hot it would be down there then!

I’m pretty sure our clothes would have burst into flames if it hadn’t also been so humid that the air was actually dripping

We made it to Pokhara that night and for me, the Renewable Safari was over. Chris and Chris would continue on by walking the first part of the Annapurna Base Camp trail, which has two off-grid communities with micro-hydro based mini-grids. It’s been a spectacular week, we’ve seen so much and I’m really grateful to the Chrises for allowing me to tag along with them. I’m already looking forward to seeing the final version of their movie, “Powering the Roof of the World”.

The end of the road. Pushpalal: you did us proud!

See all of the photos from Renewable Safari Part IV here.

Renewable Safari Part III – A Crocodile, A Wind-PV Hybrid Mini-grid, More Elephants, a Solar Village and the Elusive One-horned Rhinocerous

We took some well-earned time off today and went for an early morning hike in the jungle. On the way we see a crocodile lazing on the bank – good job we decided not to go for a swim last night! Despite the promise of tigers, bears and the legendary one-horned rhinocerous, we see only glimpses of deer. In fact, the most interesting animal we see is a leech, which sucked on the belly of our French companion before trying to go for my leg!

When we get back to Sauraha, we catch up on emails and back up the footage from the last few days whilst watching the elephant keepers bathe their elephants in the river outside our hotel. At dusk we pop out for a quick stroll and just 100m away from our hotel in the other direction is Nepal’s famous one-horned rhinocerous sitting in the river with just his horn and ears poking out. He’s having a whale of a time blowing bubbles in the water, not at all worried by the crowd of tele-photo wielding tourists (myself included) that have gathered around him on the river bank.

I’m forever blowing bubbles….

The next day we set off early for Dhaubadi, where Practical Action have recently installed 2x5kW wind tubines with a 10kW PV array. Although it should have taken us only a few hours, we didn’t arrive until early afternoon as we managed to get lost again! The road was also a lot rougher that we expected and was a real challenge for our jeep. It was the end of the monsoon season, so significant portions of the road had slipped down the hill, leaving gaping holes into oblivion. At one of these holes we stopped to let another jeep from the other direction pass. Less than 50m further along the road was a large rock sitting in the middle of the path. It was too high for either our jeep or theirs to drive over and it was right in the middle so you couldn’t drive around. I guess it was our lucky day, as if we’d arrived 15 seconds earlier, it would have smashed right into our jeep!

Removing the offending article

Half way up to Dhaubadi we unexpectedly passed through a village with many solar panels donated by the Indian government. They even had solar powered street lights! Around 3pm we made it to Dhaubadi and once again, the guy we had arranged to meet was not here. Fortunately, one of the operators of the system was, so we interviewed him instead. He was one of two operators, who worked shifts at the power house, which was located on a windy ridge above the village. Here, Practical Action had 2 larger wind turbines from China and had wisely obliged the supplier to send and engineer to live in the community and train the operators over the course of 2 years. The wind turbines were complemented by a similar sized PV array and so far the project had been a great success. The operator seemed very knowledgeable about the system and reported that the only problems had been tripping of the inverter due to the use of incandescent bulbs.

Now that really is a great site for wind power

In mountainous terrain, such the Himalayas, it seems to make far more sense to select the point where the mountains amplify the wind resource most and operate a centralised mini-grid from there. Projects such as El Alumbre in Peru where each house has been given its own wind turbine simply don’t make sense in complex terrain as the wind resource is so variable. Most people don’t live at the top of ridges and so domestic scale wind turbines simply won’t work for them.

The solar village (sponsored very kindly by the Government of India)

As we travel back down through the solar village, I realise that PV is a different matter entirely. The solar resource is much more evenly distributed and the majority of houses have access to somewhere with enough solar irradiation to generate a useful amount of power.

Clearing a landslide that wasn’t there on the way up.

See all the photos from Renewable Safari Part III here.

Renewable Safari Part II – Elephants, Solar Lanterns, Buffalo, Storks and a Biogas Digester

Today we meet briefly with Ana-Maria and Basu, who run a local co-operative who distribute solar lanterns. The lanterns allow people to work in the evenings, often producing handicrafts. Basu and his family have just opened a shop that not only do they sell solar lanterns from, but it also allows members of the community can sell their goods for a fair price. We plan to meet again in the afternoon to for some filming and take the camera to the elephant breeding centre for the morning.


On the way we see electricity being stolen. Although the community we pass through is officially electrified, many people cannot afford the cost of connection. Instead, they buy a couple of cables, attach hooks to the ends and hook them over the uninsulated steel transmission cables. When the NEA come to check up on things, then they are simply unhooked. Even if the NEA get wind of what’s going on, then there is strength in numbers as many people are doing the same and the NEA will often be chased out of the community!

Why pay for electricity when you can simply hook a line over the bare power cables

When we meet up with Basu, we rent bicycles and ride out to the local school. We’re there to see the community library he has established, as well as the office for the revolving loan fund that allows people to buy the solar lanterns. The fund was started with money from international donors and each time somebody borrows money to buy a lantern or other renewable energy product, then they repay it with interest and the amount of money in the fund increases, allowing more people to access it and to purchase larger systems. The fund is made up of smaller co-operatives of 5-10 women, who all take out the loan together. If one person cannot afford to pay, then her friends must pay for her. However, just the thought of this is almost always enough to ensure that each person pays their share on time and the fund has close to a 100% collection rate.

What an ingeniously simple product!

Next we head to the house of a family who have purchased a solar lantern. At around 1,000 rupees (around £8), they’re cheap, however they wouldn’t have been able to afford it without the loan from the fund. They lantern is a DLight, one of the most popular solar lanterns and I have to say that I was extremely impressed by it. It’s a far better product than a wind turbine if all you need is electric light as you can take it wherever you go and the sun shines every single day to recharge it. With no moving parts, its so simple and we’re told that they are extremely reliable. The next generation will even have a USB port to charge mobile phones from!

Drying lentils to be used in the national staple, Dahl Bhat (lentil curry with rice)

Out the back of the house, there is also a biogas digester. Deforestation from people chopping firewood was becoming a serious problem in Chitwan National Park, so the local authority heavily subsidised biogas digesters to produce not only gas for cooking, but also get rid of animal waste from around the house and create a high-quality fertiliser – killing three birds with one stone, what a great renewable energy solution!

Dumping some shit into the biodigester.

Fortunately by the time the gas is burnt in the kitchen, all whiffs have been fully digested.

In the next two houses we visit, one has a solar lantern and the other doesn’t. In the house that doesn’t, they have only a kerosene lamp that gives out very little light, continually flickers and is extremely yellow. As many of the houses are made from bamboo with straw roves, it only takes a moment of distraction and your house is up in flames. We conduct the interview with the kerosene lamp for lighting and right on cue, the lamp runs out of fuel in the middle of the last question! We also find out that the children of the kerosene lamp house go over to the solar lantern house every night to read and their father says that they are doing better in school because of it.

And it really does work!

See all the photos from Renewable Safari Part II here.

Renewable Safari Part I – Wind, Hydro, Diesel and a Dragonfly

At the IEEE Conference last week, I was lucky enough to meet a couple of students from Imperial College, Chris and Chris, who were planning to film a documentary on electricity production in Nepal. They were using the conference as a springboard from which to find filming opportunities, as being a conference focussed on electricity, all of Nepal’s  relevant organisations had sent representatives. They struck it lucky when a professor from Kathmandu University introduced them to the Nepal Electric Authority (NEA)’s big cheese, who kindly granted them access to go see some of the country’s most impressive power plants.

Chris & Chris at the end of the IEEE conference

They very kindly invited me to join them on these visits and as I had also wanted to see some of the small wind projects in the region, we joined forces, hired a jeep and planned to see as much as we could in the week after the conference.

Part I – Wind, Hydro, Diesel and a Dragonfly

The view over the Kathmandu Valley just after dawn

We departed Kathmandu at dawn and after a few hours of climbing up the side of a mountain, spotted our first specimen: a pair of 200W prototype wind turbines perching on an exposed ridge in the centre of a picturesque valley. They were manufactured in Nepal and installed here by Practical Action over 6 years ago. Unfortunately both are now out of service indefinitely as the community is now grid connected. However, in Nepal having a grid connection doesn’t mean having electricity on tap. Demand far outweighs supply and so those lucky enough to have a grid connection have to put up with ‘load-shedding’, i.e. scheduled power cuts, as a daily occurrence. In the wet season, the power will usually go out for 6 hours a day, whilst in the dry season when the hydro runs low, it can be up to 21 hours per day.

What’s that over there?

Is it a bird, is it a radio tower…?

Oh, its a pair of lesser-spotted Himalayan small wind turbines!

So perhaps having a wind turbine as backup isn’t such a bad thing, after all, the wealthier Nepalese all have their own diesel generators or battery chargers. This is exactly what is happening to the third wind turbine in the community on the other side of the ridge. This machine provides power for a day-care centre and is still in good working order.

A turbine that actually works!

Although the guy we came to meet is not at home (despite ringing a few days earlier to confirm!), so we interviewed a relative. He told us that there had been many problems with the turbines and they didn’t have any idea how to fix them. An engineer would come every year or so, but the machine had spent a lot of time out of service. Neither of the two machines at his house had a tail and he said that the batteries wore out a good few years ago. As these were prototype machines they do now theoretically have a regular supply of electricity, you can see why Practical Action may not put so much effort into supporting these machines. However, it is still a shame to see yet another set of turbines that have become nothing more than glorified statues.

Singh Bahadur Moktan with his broken turbine

“That way is prettier, we need to shoot there.” “No this way is prettier”

Back on the road, we headed for Khulekani, Nepal’s oldest hydro damn. Capable of generating 60MW in stage I and a further 30 in the second, it was the opposite end of the spectrum to the three tiny turbines we had just visited. It was certainly an impressive piece of engineering, involving the damning of two separate rivers and the drilling of a tunnel for tens of kilometres through the mountain, funnelling a vast amount of water into two sets of turbines with a combined head of over 1,000m! The water travels so far through the mountain that it took us almost an hour to get to the powerhouse from the damn (not including getting lost time!).

The film-maker

Finally, we came down from the mountains to Hetauda to visit Nepal’s only large scale diesel generator. It generates 14MW and is only switched on for a few months during the dry season, despite a huge shortfall in electricity production throughout the year. It is an ancient machine, built around 50 years ago in, would you have it, sunny old England! I imagine the cost of diesel that it gobbles through combined with the knowledge that it can’t have that many years left in it is the reason why it sits dormant for the majority of the year. It is however, incredibly well maintained and looks almost new – I suppose this is what happens when you have a full crew of engineers sitting around for most of the year with nothing to do!

The monstrous pistons

Made in Leeds of all places!

As the sun sets, we make our way to our resting place for the night, Sauraha, on the edge of Chitwan National Park. As we get closer, it becomes difficult to see the road ahead and we realise that the headlights are gradually fading. We stop by the side of the road and find the alternator belt completely missing! Driving on Nepalese roads at night is not advisable, but doing so without headlights is surely suicidal! Fortunately I have my trusty biking light with me – that thing is seriously powerful. With me holding it out the window and pointing it only to road, we roll into Sauraha at around 10pm tired and ready for a good night’s sleep.

See all the photos from Renewable Safari Part I here.

One Day Workshop on Wind Power Engineering

What luck: both the organisations that I had wanted to work with in Nepal, Practical Action and KAPEG, had teamed up to host this workshop the day after the IEEE conference finished! It was quite the contrast to the IEEE’s event and I was pleased to see that other than Peter Freere, who ran the morning session, then I was the only non-Nepali there. Fortunately the whole event was in English, which did feel quite strange as after Peter had gone, I was left wondering whether the afternoon’s discussion would have been much easier for everybody else if it had been in Nepali.

Peter Freere sharing his wealth of knowledge on wind energy systems

Peter is a very interesting fellow, who worked at Monash University in Australia before transferring to Kathmandu University for 4 years. Whilst there, he founded KUPEG (the Kathmandu University Power and Energy Group) and successfully trained many students to an international standard. When he left Kathmandu University, KUPEG became KAPEG (the Kathmandu Alternative Power and Energy Group) and continued much as it had done before. Peter’s excellent tuition allowed many of KAPEG’s staff to obtain prestigious scholarships to study overseas, which although great for them has made it very difficult for the organisation to make progress with such high staff turnover. As I mentioned in my previous post, I hope some of them come back to KAPEG after their studies as their new skills will be invaluable to the organisation.

I was glad to be the only non-Nepali!

The highlight of the day for me was the round table discussion at the end of the day on wind power in Nepal. Important issues that came up were:

  • Practical Action and KAPEG had both had particular problems with Hugh Piggott-style axial flux permanent magnet generators and were now considering importing wind turbine generators from China. The blades, tower and tail could be made in Nepal, as it is cheaper to do so. However, the magnets must be imported from China and the cost of the magnets alone for a 300W Hugh Piggott alternator is higher than importing a prefabricated 1kW wind turbine generator.
  • Government subsidies for PV and micro-hydro are significant (over 50%), however only certified products qualify for the subsidy. As wind power has yet to establish itself in the country, nobody is actually aware of how you would even go about getting the government to certify a particular wind turbine.
  • Previously unsuccessful wind power projects have given the technology a bad reputation. Given the phenomenal success of both micro-hydro and solar in the country, then many people question why wind is even needed. However wind must be seen as complementary to both micro-hydro and PV, as not every community is lucky enough to have a suitable stream running nearby and PV is still prohibitively expensive for many people. Micro-hydro generally works best near the bottoms of hills where there are many streams, however the tops of hills are usually the windiest.

IEEE International Conference on Sustainable Energy Technologies (ICSET) 2012

This week I’ve been in Kathmandu presenting my work on socio-technical systems at the IEEE’s ICSET conference. The focus of the conference is on power electronics for sustainable energy technologies, however there is also a wide variety of other sustainable energy related research being presented, such as a life cycle analysis of a solar charging kiosk in Rwanda and the mechanical design of a pico-hydro turbine for Nepal.

Outside the Soaltee Crowne Plaza where the conference was hosted

There delegates are mainly international as the £500 registration fee has unfortunately put off most Nepalis from attending. However there are some excellent contributions from Nepali researchers, some of whom are studying abroad but have come home to present their work. One of the first presenters is a Nepali girl studying in South Dakota and at the end of the talk a professor from Kathmandu Univeristy asks whether she will bring her new skills to Nepal, but she replies that she is hoping to work in the US.

Sam Williamson of Bristol University demonstrating his design for a pico-hydro turbine rotor

The brain drain happens in many countries, such as Nepal, where the brightest young people cannot find the opportunities they want at home and head overseas. It is particularly a problem for KAPEG (the Kathmandu Alternative Power and Energy Group), who I will be visiting next week, as most of their staff have now left to study for Masters degrees or PhDs overseas, leaving only the newest members in Nepal (who also are hoping to soon be able to study overseas!). Some of them hope to return back to KAPEG and if they do then their new skills will really help the organisation, however the possibility of much better paid work overseas with a wider variety of opportunities may mean that they may never come back.

Students from the UK, Japan, Nepal and Vietnam.

As part of the conference we get to visit Kathmandu University, which is not actually in Kathmandu, but instead is around an hour and a half to the east surrounded by rice paddies and forested mountains. It really is quite the contrast to the hustle and bustle of the city and is quite a beautiful spot. I’m surprised to see quite a few scandanavians here, as there is some kind of exchange programme going. In fact the scandanavians seem to have quite close links with Nepal in general as most of the country’s hydro generators are Norwegian and a lot of the funds for KAPEG’s work comes from either Denmark or Norway. The conference is brought to a close with an outstanding performance of traditional Nepali music in the university’s department of music, located in a beautiful historical building on the way back to Kathmandu. I’m left feeling very jealous as this is probably the most spectacular university building I have ever seen – even better than ETH in Zurich!

A cheeky solar powered street light nestled between the temples in Patan Durbar Square.

Winner of Mech Eng Photo Competition

I must be on a roll, because another of my photos has won a photo competition! This time it’s Sheffield Uni’s Mechanical Engineering Department’s and as you can see above, its proudly on display in the department’s main corridor. The competition theme was ‘movement’, so I chose this Mad Max-style image of a spinning wind turbine providing electricity to a mechanics workshop in the Peruvian coastal desert region on the Panamericana highway.