In this “5 quick questions” blog we introduce community micro hydro and talk to Joe Butchers (pictured in Nepal) who is a PhD student at the Faculty of Engineering at Bristol University. Joe’s research focuses on understanding both the technical, social and economic aspect of micro-hydro in Nepal, in order to improve the reliability and sustainability of systems.
Micro-hydro or community scale hydro is a renewable energy solution which goes back a long time not least in Nepal. It is the focal point also of the Hydro Empowerment Network (HPNET) which forms an important part of the LCEDN community. HPNET does knowledge exchange for community micro hydro in South and South-East Asia and provide an important platform for knowledge exchange around micro hydro through the region and beyond. During a visit to the International Conference on the Developments in Renewable Energy Technology (ICDRET) which was held in Kathmandu earlier this year (2018) HPNET had organised a visit to Syaurebhumi, the first grid-connected micro hydro plant in Nepal. This is where I was able to talk to Joe about his experiences of micro-hydro and of doing research in Nepal.
(This interview was conducted by Dr Britta Turner, Research Associate, LCEDN/Durham University).
Large scale hydro power is known to be very controversial. What is micro- / mini- / pico- hydro and why is it important to learn about it?
Pico, micro and mini hydro all refer to different sizes of hydropower systems which are all much smaller systems than large hydro. There is some debate over the exact categorisation, approximately pico-hydro refers to 0-10kW, micro-hydro to 10-100kW is and mini-hydro to 100-1000kW is. Almost all schemes at this scale will be “run of the river”. This means that no dam is required, and a small proportion (less than 10%) of a river’s water is diverted, used to generate electricity and then returned to the river further downstream. Compared to large scale hydropower, the environmental and social impacts are much smaller as there is only a small change to the natural environment. In locations with the correct geography (a river or stream and a drop in height), small scale hydropower is one of the most cost-effective forms of rural electrification. In addition, the technology is relatively simple and with correct training, local beneficiaries can operate and manage the plant themselves.
Why is Nepal particularly interesting when it comes to Micro-Hydro?
Nepal’s terrain makes it very well suited to hydropower and grid expansion has been slow due to political issues. As a result, micro-hydropower has been used in Nepal for over 40 years to provide electricity to people in rural areas. The turbines are typically made and installed by small companies based in Nepal. International development efforts in the 1970s led to the creation of technical colleges which trained the owners of todays micro-hydropower companies. There are now more than 70 companies that are accredited as micro-hydro manufacturers and installers by the Alternative Energy Promotion Centre (AEPC) in Nepal. With accreditation, these companies are eligible to receive subsidies that are used by the AEPC to ensure rural communities can pay. The beneficiaries of the project are also expected to contribute their time as labour to construct the canal and other civil works. Government agencies provide training to plant operators and managers. Once the construction of the project is complete, these members of the local community are responsible for the operation of the plant. Despite being well established in Nepal, it is common for plants to have problems during their operation. Beneficiaries often have to deal with unreliable electricity connections or can be left without any electricity at all. This affects both life in the home and livelihood opportunities. I am interested in understanding the interaction of technical, social and economic factors that lead to problems with micro-hydropower plants in Nepal.
What have you been finding so far - and how has your research been developing since you have been in Nepal?
I have now visited 24 sites, completing observations at interviews at all of these. Generally, there is a big variation in how plants are looked after. Encouragingly, plants with trained operators are significantly better maintained than those with untrained operators. We found that it is common for operators to use the qualification they have earnt to look for work elsewhere, often in the Gulf countries. When they leave, the person who replaces them has had no training at all. I hadn’t expected the management structures to be as well organised as they are. Monthly bills charged based on consumption read from an energy meter installed in homes and consumers are diligent about paying. In some cases, the tariffs were not always sufficient to pay for repair costs which meant managing committees had to request extra payments or look for loans. The plants I visited usually held an important position in rural communities. They power homes, providing lighting and entertainment, but they also power a range of end uses. These range from traditional productive end uses such as grain milling and saw mills to social uses like schools, health posts and government offices. I find it interesting that these social electricity uses can bring positive change to individuals even if they are not a paying consumer of the hydropower plant. For me (with a background in mechanical engineering), I have been learning how often the success of a technology depends on social and economic factors as well.
You work with some local organisations in Nepal and the region, what does that mean for your research?
It has been really beneficial to be connected with a local organisation who work on the ground in Nepal. I have been working with the People, Energy and Environment Development Association (PEEDA) for over 4 years now and it is great to have an established relationship as we are always looking for ways to support each other. Colleagues at PEEDA were able to ensure that our approach in interviews and observations was focused on the local context. Travelling with a colleague from PEEDA meant that we could conduct interviews in Nepali and gain extra insight from all of the other conversation that we had. This was really important in rural areas where most of our interviewees did not speak English. As well as PEEDA, I have worked with employees of the Renewable Energy for Rural Livelihoods (RERL) project which is based at the AEPC in Nepal. They are focused on supporting the development of renewable energy throughout the country. I feel very fortunate to have been to work with decision makers operating at a national level as it has allowed me to align my research with what is going on in the country.
I noticed that you already speak good Nepali, how is that making a difference to your research?
I wouldn’t say it was good yet! In attempting to learn, I have definitely understood more about the culture. Even with my limited Nepali, people have appreciated my efforts which has allowed me to be more personable with people. Nepalis are very welcoming, and I feel comfortable wherever I am in Nepal. Whilst spending time in rural homes, I tried to understand what day to day life is like. This is important in understanding attitudes to energy and what it means to people to be connected to a hydropower plant. Without engaged consumers who pay regularly and are willing to help with repairs, micro-hydro plants can struggle. I will keep practicing and hopefully one day, I can conduct my own interviews in Nepali!
For more information about Joe Butcher, HPNET or the Syaurebhumi micro hydro plant see