Micro hydro Interconnected Mini Grid (MHIMG) - Prospect to Pitfall
Mini Grid is found to be technically feasible, financial viable depending on different factors (capacity, plant factor, distance, etc.). It could be the permanent source of electricity supply in areas far away from national grid and could be connected with grid if it is nearby. Capacity building and coordination, understanding among community is major step for sustainable operation. Baglung Mini Grid is becoming a research place and has built confidence for replication.

Till date over 2500 MHPs ranging from 1 kW to 100 kW has been constructed in Nepal, generating a total of 22 MW of electricity with 100 MW potential. A drizzle in the face of Nepal's estimated 43000 MW of commercially and technically viable hydropower potential, but these droplets provide electricity to over 200,000 people in remote areas. These stand-alone hydropower plants harness free flowing energy in streams and rivers to produce continuous, uninterrupted electricity with minimal environment impact. But their supply is often limited to certain hours of the day when demands as at its peak.

Just above half of the Nepal's population has access to national electricity grid, and it may be decades before the network reaches deep into remote, dispersed settlements of the northern hill and mountain regions. But owing to the terrain and water resources and human resources and institution with appropriated experiences to support such projects as well as cost effectiveness offers an alternative source of energy in the form of hydro power and other, that can be harnessed not only in super-sized constructions like China's 22,500 MW Three Gorges Dam, but also in comparatively miniscule, "run-off-river" turbines better suited to the needs of rural communities of Nepal (Report, S Mallapaty). About 15% of the population of rural Nepal has access to electricity through distributed renewable energy technologies such as MHPs and SHSs.

Improving energy access in Nepal is being pursued via grid extension by the state owned utility, the Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA), and via smaller distributed off-grid renewable energy technologies, administered through Alternative Energy Promotion Center (AEPC)-government subsidy and other organizations. Both approaches have been their own pros and cons. Under current tariff arrangement, grid extension can provide electricity supply at a lower cost to consumers than alternative, provided that adequate generations and network capacity is available to supply the area. However, the access of national grid to rural areas is hindered due to unsuitable geography, vastly scattered settlements and resulting in low return on investment. In addition, even in the dense urban areas of Nepal, the grid is unreliable, with load shedding of 14-16 hours in the dry seasons due to inadequate generation capacity (Report, B Shakya). Similarly, every year, more than 100 hydropower licenses get cancelled where the license acquiring company's motto seems to be none other than capturing the river only. To add up, some of the under completion hydropower projects also get delayed due to massive earthquake of April 25, 2015 and its subsequent aftershocks. Further, the development of large hydropower has been delayed due to long Maoist insurgency. As a repercussion, the expansion of national grid lines in rural areas are getting longer period than expected thereby the people of these areas are compelled to stay in the dark for extended period. Thus, renewable energy technology like micohydro, solar, etc. seems to be the only option left to energize these areas. And my concern here is isolated micro hydro, which is not free from obstacles and demerits and its best solution is to make mini grid where viable, elaborated in successive paragraphs.

The question often arises why micro hydro interconnected mini grid (MHIMG)? The obvious answer is load sharing. Besides this, it overcomes the hurdles and difficulties an individual micro hydro face such as low load factor (around 20%), unreliability, lack of integrated plan for rural electrification, expansion of national grid in micro hydro areas so that people switching from micro hydro to national grid, etc. Other shortcoming of isolated MHPs are: limited Capacity of Generation to meet the future load growth, less reliability to supply electricity during regular maintenance, low quality electricity, difficulty in providing round the clock supply for plants that share water for other important purposes like irrigation, drinking water, etc. (EcoCoDE Nepal, 2013). Therefore, these MHPs often end up with dysfunction. To avoid this shortcoming, the first micro hydro interconnected mini grid has been constructed in Baglung district in Nepal through AEPC/REDP supported by UNDP as a pilot project and the other example of such projects includes IMIREN Mini Grid of Gulmi where two MHPs are interconnected to generate 218 kW power supported by GIZ in 2015 and the Taplejung Mini Grid supported by the World Bank is underway.

Let's go through the first MHIMG-Urja Upatyaka Mini Grid of Baglung. It synchronizes 6 Micro Hydro plants ( i.e. Upper Kalung Khola (12 kW), Kalung Khola (22 kW), Urja Khola I (26 kW), Urja Khola II (9kW), Urjakhola IV (14 kW) & Theulakhola MHP (24 kW), originated from same source of stream located in current Rangkhani, Paiyauthanthap, Sarkuwa and Damek VDV   having total power output of the system is 107 kW, interconnected by means of 8 kM long , 11 kV transmission line with 1198 households (HHs) as beneficiary. All of these plants were built in between 2056 to 2068 and are supported by AEPC/REDP and model of operation is IPP (Independent Power Producer) Model through Co-operative process where each MHPs generates the power and sell to the Minigrid Co-operative according to the fixed Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) rate whereas the minigrid cooperative involves in distribution, transmission, purchasing from MHPs and selling to the consumers according to the tariff set up. Microprocessor based grid synchronizable Electronic load Controller (ELC) is the core technology imported from India in this project.

During the short period of successfully operating from Kartik 2069 to Chaitra 2070, many positive changes: economic, social, technological, etc. have been seen. With the Urja Upatyaka Mini Grid, around 1200 beneficiaries have been benefitted and 52 number of enterprises has been opened up. Evidences have found out that this project have a greater positive effect than the individual MHPs in rural livelihood. Increment of Productive End Use has boosted living standard of the community. The more revenue it generates, the more self-supportive and self-reliant the community becomes which the mini grid has capability to do. Continuous power supply not only benefitted directly to end uses like development of micro-enterprises such as saw-mills, chilling VATs, hollers, bakery, computer classes, mobile charging stations, soap manufacturing, etc. but also indirectly to act psychological self-sufficient and life standard of the community. Technological advancements like quality, availability and reliability of improved electricity, easier starting for motor and bigger load (which needs three times power: surge power), better safety and protection, increased plant factor were achieved. Financial benefits includes increment of income of individual MHPs, creation of jobs or augmented employment opportunities and increased numbers of entrepreneurs as well as establishment of new enterprises and possibility of establishing medium enterprises like crushers, tile factory, etc. Similarly, social advantages includes behavioral change in electricity used (from mere use of electricity from lighting to productive end uses), power based tariff system to energy based system that governs the habit of stopping power waste with the trend of installation of energy meter started in micro hydro from this project, sense of ownership and unity among community, decision on resource mobilization, longer hours of study for the children, convenience of domestic works and better lifestyle through higher income from productive end uses.

Although the project runs successfully for a short period of time, locals have already started to take advantage of the benefits afforded by the system. In the past, electricity was rationed to a few hours of lighting in the mornings and evenings, and households were allotted two-hour slots to run their rice mills. But the electricity available to use was limited. Before they had no control, but today, with 24-hour access and metres installed in almost every houses, locals have the freedom to choose when and how much electricity to consume. And the price is more affordable and there's an increase in consumption from 100 kilowatts to 200 or 300 kilowatts every month due to increase use of various domestic appliances. The new system is transforming livelihoods. More people are using rice cookers, small saw mills and rice mills. Schools now offer early morning classes for eleventh and twelfth graders and many can now run computers. Some locals have invested in poultry farming that requires lighting through the night.

The problems of halted operation can be highlighted as social, financial, technical and management issues. Social issues are the main reason for halted operation of mini grid which can be listed as: local political interference in Mini Grid Cooperative as a major reason, difficulty in community mobilization, lack of ownership feelings and lack of unity/biasness. The financial issues of mini grid can be seen as: low electricity consumption rate of domestic consumer, higher repair-maintenance and replacement cost of control equipments, older structures of  the  plants  lead  to  more  maintenance  costs  of  civil,  electrical  and  mechanical components, lack of deposit fund with the Mini Grid and plants. It makes difficult for the replacement of equipments requiring huge costs such as to Transformer, Generator, damaging of transmission and distribution system, expensive human resource cost for operation and management staffs both technical and financial causes the additional financial burden over both business groups. Also difficulties for end use promotion in the Mini Grid area are due to adverse geology condition, bad structure of access road, individual biasness of community, lack of human resources, etc.

Similarly, the technical issues can be listed as little knowledge of imported technology, lack of central control and monitoring unit, lack of convenient communication mechanism, issues on the active power sharing, lack of spare parts, expensive technology and maintenance problems, difficulties in dry season load management, older structures of the plants, lack of skilled manpower for O/M, lack of sufficient knowledge for MHP operator. In addition there are key management issues as  gap creation between Micro Hydro functional Group and Co-Operative, delay in problem solving, high  financial  burden  over  the  Mini  Grid and if any generating plant is shut down for long time due to some reason then the income of that plant is very low which may create financial problems for MHFG. The only solution to revive this project is reorganization of Co-operative Committee and connection of the project to the national grid as soon as possible.

Mini Grid is found to be technically feasible, financial viable depending on different factors (capacity, plant factor, distance, etc.). It could be the permanent source of electricity supply in areas far away from national grid and could be connected with grid if it is nearby. Capacity building and coordination, understanding among community is major step for sustainable operation. Baglung Mini Grid is becoming a research place and has built confidence for replication.

The micro hydro project has great impact in Nepalese community where the settlements is sparsely dispersed with rough geographic terrain. Moreover, the expansion of National Grid lines has posed a great threat to the operation of micro hydros as the people obviously shift from micro hydros to National Grid on its reliability and readily availability where no maintenance, management, etc. from the community required. With MHIMG, the smaller micro hydros connected to a network where surplus energy can be sold to the non-electrified or needy community thereby increasing revenue. With increase in revenue and proper funding in community benefits, the community gets all the benefits like investing in infrastructure development viz, roads, schools, capacity development, etc. The fear of wiping out of individual plant can be prevented at its most. Empirical findings in India where mini grid implementation are rampant finds that benefits of MHIMG are increased financial capital, better education of children, self-supporting of individual micro hydro, increased productive end uses  and increased social capital. Most of all, the dying of individual MHPs whatsoever reasons, which the community invested great effort during construction, can be prevented.

Mini Grid is found to be technically feasible, financial viable depending on different factors (capacity, plant factor, distance, etc.). It could be the permanent source of electricity supply in areas far away from national grid and could be connected with grid if it is nearby. Capacity building and coordination, understanding among community is major step for sustainable operation. Baglung Mini Grid is becoming a research place and has built confidence for replication.

The future of microhydros can only be brightened if only we could be able to connect feasible microhydros to form a mini grid network which gives conducive environment for national grid line connection. While establishing MHIMG, critical analysis of these things has to be done at initial level with high priority: distance between individual micro hydros, market for excess energy, potential for inter-system power transfer, distance between national grid, appropriate subsidy policy, proper community engagement and think beyond political, easily accessible equipment and manpower, capacity assessment and development, diversity of generation mix and supply security and proper coordination. Only then the true existence of individual micro hydros can be garnered.

-Basanta Pathak

 Environment, Energy and Climate Change Officer

Office of District Coordination Committee, Ramechhap, Nepal


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