WHEN the sun set behind the moun¬tains in the village of Benighat in Central Nepal, Bishnu Shrestha used to board up his store and go home to bed. Today, Bishnu´s store is lit up by a bright neon tube, and is open late. Even villagers from the far valley have come around – attracted to the shop like die moths that flap around the light.
Elsewhere in Benighat, children read their school books after their evening meals in the soft glow of 25 watt bulbs, and the whirr from a nearby house indicates the village tailor is working late. It has taken ´a long time for the dream of rural electrification to be realised in villages like Benighat. But the light of development is turning into a feeble dawn, here and elsewhere in the Nepali mountains.
With a total feasible hydropower potential topping 30,000 megawatts, Nepal´s fast-flowing Himalayan rivers have often been called its “white gold”. But only 0.05 percent of this wealth has so far been harnessed. Government plans to spread the use of cheap electricity across the Himlayan hinterland to replace firewood for cooking and to reduce the pressure on dwindling forests have been slow to catch on. Only 30 of Nepal´s 75 districts have some electricity, and Kathmandu´s plans to build big dams like the six billion dollar Chisapani Project in Western Nepal have got bogged down in cost-sharing disagreements with India. Officials in Kathmandu argue that Nepal needs to “think big” because the only way it can clear its adverse trade deficit with India in the immediate future is by selling water and power to its southern neighbour.
Meanwhile, most Nepali villages continue to slumber in darkness. “A viable alternative to building large dams is to use technology available in the country and to develop new designs for smaller affordable power plants,” says Bikash Pandey, an electrical engineer with the Butwal-based Development and Consulting Services (DCS).
Power planners in Kathmandu now appear to have had second thoughts about relying entirely on big dams to light *up the villages. Transmission costs far outstrip generation expenses, and Nepal´s poor and remote villages are difficult and expensive to hook up to the national grid.The government deregulated ail powerplants with capacities under 100 kilowatts two year ago, and announced subsidies of up to 50 percent on all electrical installations.
“These are exciting times for village electrification,” says Pandey. “We are about to see it take off.” DCS installed a three kilowatt powerplant on a stream near Benighat from which Bishnu Shrestha gets his electricity. In the nearby village of Taklung, another DCS-built generator provides lights for 22 houses four hours a day. The village co-operative put up the plant for a cost of NRs 30,000 – half of it a loan from the Agriculture Development Bank (ADB/N) and the rest from Unicef. And most of the borrowed funds are now said to have been nearly paid up as households pay NRs 12 per months per lightbulb. Another imaginative entrepreneur in Mohantar village uses his converted water mill to dehusk rice during the- daytime, and at night sells electricity from a generator powered by the same turbine to the military barracks in nearby Gajuri.
No more do these village entrepreneurs need a license, and the previously voluminous paperwork for permission and royalty payments have been practically eliminated. DCS itself has surveyed 85 viable sites across central and western Nepal, and over 20 have been built in the last year alone. “With the subsidy and loan, most investments are returned within one year. In some villages, the powerplants make economic sense even without subsidies”, says Pandey, who got his degree from the Massassachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Most power planners in Kathmandu see lighting as & “luxury” and stress other uses for it to be cost-effective in the long run. “But at the moment there is no tariff incentive to cook in electricity,” says Pandey. Village microhydros would make electricity available at a flat rate – customers subscribe to a certain amount of power whether they use it or not.
“What is most remarkable about small power units is their cost – you can install a two kilowatt plant on a stream flowing outside your house for half the cost of a Honda generator of the same capacity that runs on gas,” Says Binayak Bhadra, resource economist at ICIMOD. In Butwal, DCS is now testing a novel electrical cooker that it says is three times more efficient than normal filament heaters currently in use in the cities. Designed and crafted in its workshop, the cooker is air-insulated and has a heating element welded underneath. It can cook rice, lentils and tea, can be dipped into the river for cleaning and has a designed lifespan of over five years, (see box)
Electricity is the new status symbol in rural Nepal. The village headman in Sindhupalchowk chopped down a large tree in his garden because people in the valley below could not see his new electric light at night. And the engineers, surveyors and technicians who come to install the powerplants are VIPs. “They treat me like a king when I go to set up a plant, I am their ´electric man´ (bijuli manchhe),” says Akkal Man Nakarmi the talented Kathmandu craftsman who designed and made the now-famous multi-purpose power unit (MPPU) that revolutionised village milling in Nepal. Nakarmi says his generators that go with the MPPUs have become very popular, and the.y are “dirt cheap”. He makes the one kilowatt generators himself converting normal. electric motors in his cramped and busy workshop in Nagal, Kathmandu.
But small-scale hydropower seems to be on the threshold of revolutionising the way village Nepal lives. Already, the whine of MPPUs and microhydels can be heard over the gurgle and splash of traditional water mills along the Kathmandu – Pokhara highway. If a village entrepreneur of co-operatives wants to go for a electrification project, all they have to do is ask one of the companies from Butwal or Kathmandu to come and survey their site. If feasible, an ADB loan is easily obtained. “It´s simple and it´s small. And the beautiful thing about it is that it can be easily replicated, no foreign Sompanies or consultants” explains Pandey.
|The Electrified Deckhi
The designers of this ingenious 200 watt electric cooker-seem to have thought of everything. The heating element is water-proof so the whole cooker can be dipped into a river for washing. The pot can withstand over five years of hard scrubbing with ash and sand. The insulation makes the cooker exceptionally heat-efficient, and is five times less expensive on electricity than a 1000 watt filament heater currently in use.
But, like all other new technolgies, the cooker designers at the Development and Consulting Services (DCS) in Butwal admit that the final test is whether the people accept it. Five prototype cookers are now being tested in Butwal, and preparations are being made to mass-produce 1,000 of them.
The basic concept is one that would make E. F. Schumacher smile. It uses two locally made aluminum “dekchis” with a mica heating element welded underneath them. The air between the posts provides the insulation, and 200 watts is sufficient to cook rice, lentils and tea – the three main energy consuming items in the average Nepali diet.
The cooker costs NRs 300 for a two litre model (NRs 450 for seven litres). In households with 200 watt supply from a local microhydro project, spreading the cooking load is done by a combination of heat storage and low-wattage cooking.
This means water is heated during off-peak hours like afternoon or night. Cooking also has to be done in series, not simultaneously. In the villages, an average household would require three cookers – one for rice, one for dal and one for hot water.
DCS has drawn up a “timetable” for the village family in which the low-wattage cooker must be left on all night to provide hot water for the morning meal and tea.
According to the new schedule, families will have to cook their dinners in the afternoon so they can use their 200 watt allocation for lighting purposes in the evening.
An average household needs about NRs lf20Q to buy two big and one small cooker and will be spending about NRs 75 per month for their subscription of 200 W of electricity, which includes the cost of using five 40 W bulbs. People connected to Nepal´s national grid have a monthly expense for cooking of NRs88 on an average. Firewood fop cooking can cost between NRs 60-80 in Kathmandu. As yet, there does not seem to be much incentive for people who gather their own firewood to switch to electricity for cooking. In the beginning, the manufacturer expects only those with a sizable cash income in the villages to start using the cookers.
There is´ also the question of socialacceptability. Observing and stirringcannot be done because water will not boil with the lid out. Cooking also hasto be done in series. Rice first, thendal then tea, instead of simultaneously.Cooking times may also be too long forthe hungry farmer who wanted to quicklyput together a dal-bhat-tarkari. “All this requires people to rearrange their management of time related to household