In Nepal, a simple solution brings light to mountain communities

Jan 30, 2013

Creating electricity for the planet requires hundreds of massive power plants, and a transmission grid system to deliver the power. In the Himalayan nation of Nepal, mountains impede this delivery.

“Nepal is a poor country,” says Kiran Man Singh, a senior rural energy expert. “We don’t have many resources, because we are landlocked, and we don’t have fossil fuels.”

But one thing the nation does have is water. So small-scale hydroelectric projects, called micro-hydro, are being used to harness the power of water to produce electricity. Cheaper and faster than large hydroelectric dams, these micro-hydro projects are channeling Nepal’s ample water resources to power dark villages in the nation of 27 million.

"Micro-hydro was introduced in Nepal before, but the difference UNDP made was to put community people at the center of the project so that they are the driver to introduce this technology, then also maintain and then have full ownership," says Shoko Nodo, UNDP Country Director in Nepal.

Because it is difficult for villagers to reach out to the national power grid, they need their own local system, Nodo says.

The process is simple, explains Satish Gautum, program manager for Renewable Energy for Urban Livelihood.

“You have water flowing everywhere. You just use that height, and then take the water through a pipe and it runs a turbine, then the turbine is coupled with a generator, and it produces electricity,” he says.

With the UNDP model, communities are required to help with everything: from digging the channels to diverting the water, to stringing the power lines and installing the lights. Since 1996, nearly 400 micro-hydro power plants have been built in the most remote and impoverished areas of Nepal, bringing modern energy for the first time to nearly half a million people.

“When they see the first bulb click, you can see their smile,” Kiran Man Singh said.

The average micro-hydro project provides about 30 kilowatts of electricity, enough to power a village like Karbang in western Nepal. This newfound resource has sparked something of an economic boom in the village, powering welding shops, a cell-phone repair business, and even an ice cream shop.

One villager, Pabitra Giri, has opened a soap-manufacturing business.

“My dream was to run this business, and my dream has come true,” she says. “It has been very beneficial for my family. Until now, we were not able to educate our children.”

The micro-hydro project helps power classrooms, a medical clinic with an x-ray machine, and a way to refrigerate vaccinations to keep improving public health. Through these small, local electric plants, these big changes in the once-dark mountains of Nepal may light the way forward for ending energy poverty.

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