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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!).
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!
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.