Sunday, January 29

Crippling power outages throwing life out of gear in Nepal

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KATHMANDU: When it gets cold during Nepal’s winter nights, Yem Prasad Gurung turns on his heater run by liquefied petroleum gas. When it gets dark, he switches on the lights that rely on a solar inverter – and to make sure he gets water, he turns on a generator-powered water pump.It is not that Gurung lives in a remote part of this Himalayan country. It is just that he is tired of living with long electricity cuts that have plagued the country for the last two winters — and decided to take things into his own hands.

“I have given up hope. The situation does not look like it is going to improve any time in the near future. I had no option other than investing in these back-ups,” complained Gurung, a British Army pensioner who lives in the capital Kathmandu.

Nepal is said to be second only to Brazil in terms of water resources, but it is reeling under up to 12 hours of power cuts in a day.

Nepal’s total hydroelectricity potential is 83,000 megawatts, of which more than 40,000 mw is exploitable, experts say. But the country is nowhere close to generating half of the meagre 860 mw, the present peak-hour requirement. As it is, only a third of the population of 27.5 million has access to electricity and demand for it is growing by 10 percent annually.

This year is the third consecutive winter of erratic power supply. Load shedding, which is divided into two parts each day, starts with the onset of winter in October to November and lasts until the monsoon arrives in June or July.

Power cuts peak in mid-February to March, until the advent of the rainy season.

Shrinking profits

“Power outages are undoubtedly eating into our profits but most importantly, they are giving us a lot of mental harassment,” said the chief executive officer of a company that provides Internet service, who declined to be named.

“Instead of focusing our energy on thinking about client service or, say, introducing newer technologies, we are constantly forced to think about availing diesel for generators, replacing our batteries and keeping our uninterrupted power supply equipment and chargers in top condition,” he said, estimating that his profits are down by 25 per cent.

Already, he says, clients are opting for cheaper packages because the power outages make it difficult to use the Internet consistently. “Newer subscribers have stopped coming altogether,” he rued.

While businesses like the Internet company or individuals like Gurung are able to resort to a host of measures to cope with the power cuts, others are not able to do much more than get extra compact fluorescent lamps and tube lights. Not surprisingly, vendors of such products are reporting brisk business.

But many others have little choice except to wait out the power cuts, which are happening because many large investments that should have been done before were put on hold due to political stability.

During the decade-long Maoist insurgency, which ended in 2006, private investors shied away from risking their investments because the rebels regularly attacked power plants. Hydroelectric projects require huge funds. For instance, a 10-mw hydropower plant requires an investment of 1.5 billion Nepali rupees (RM73.5 million).

“Apart from political instability, there is no doubt that the present situation is a result of our work culture and slow decision-making process,” said energy ministry spokesman Anup Kumar Upadhyay.

Sher Singh Bhat, director of system operation department at the government-owned Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA), says it is only able to supply 370 mw out of the peak-time demand of 860 mw.

Only 250 mw of the 370 mw is generated by Nepal. The rest is imported from India, its southern neighbour. “Had it not been for 120 megawatts that we import from India, we would have been facing 20 hours of power cuts everyday,” Bhat stressed.

Domestically, Nepal gets electricity from three sources: the run-of-the- river hydropower plants owned both by NEA and the private sector, the state- owned Kulekhani plant – the only reservoir-based project – and thermal plants.

The government-owned run-of-the-river plants have an installed capacity to generate 385 mw while the combined capacity of independent power producers stands at 166 mw. Similarly, the installed capacity at Kulekhani is 92 mw, while thermal plants have the capability to generate another 53 mw.

But during the dry winter months, the hydropower plants can hardly generate even half of their installed capacity. At present, the run-of-the- river plants, both public and private, generate 186 mw and the reservoir- based Kulekhani produces another 46 mw.

“The one and only solution to addressing the problem in the short-run is to expand our cross-border transmission link so that we can import electricity from India during winter,” said Upadhyay. This link is currently capable of transporting just 120 mw of electricity.

He explains that the expanded transmission link would serve multiple purposes. It can be used to export power when Nepal has surplus electricity during the wet months, and to import this during the dry winter months.

There is an “understanding” between the Nepali side and Indian partners to upgrade their cross-border transmission link and the World Bank has pledged to help Nepal technically and financially in this, Upadhyay explains. But it will take up to 24 months to have the upgraded link ready, he adds. — IPS