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.

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