Nepal: Microgrid Systems for Rural Development
University of California – Los Angeles
PhD Student – Materials Science and Engineering
Getting situated in the Nepal’s capital city of Kathmandu, I joined the group of fellow Green Program “GREENies” for a lunch of what is perhaps Nepal’s most famous dish—dal baht, with rice, lentil soup, chicken curry, and a variety of other spicy veggie sides. As we got to know each other’s stories, we rode to Patan Durbar Square, one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, where we were guided through the ancient, ornate palace with numerous temples and sites of worship for both Buddhists and Hindus. By chance, we also witnessed the procession of a Janku—a birthday celebration for Newar people of Nepal, celebrated when a person reaches exactly 77 years, 7 months, and 7 days old. We also got to visit the Swayambunath Temple (aka the monkey temple) and many other sites of religious and cultural significance in Kathmandu.
Over the next few days we took classes with professors of Kathmandu University focused on sustainable rural development and alternative energy. In these classes, I learned about the unique energy situation in Nepal, a country with nearly 30 million people, almost 13% of whom are without electricity. Due to its location in the Himalayas, Nepal is the 2nd wealthiest country in terms of water resources (after Brazil). While only ~1000 MW of hydropower has been installed, the theoretical potential for hydroelectric power is up to 80,000 MW. The location of many villages makes rural electrification difficult but presents an opportunity for decentralized microgrid systems based on alternative energy. At present, however, only about 3% of Nepal’s total energy usage comes from renewable sources like hydro or solar.
Dr. Sagar Raj Sharma, Dean of the School of Arts at Kathmandu University, provided some necessary context as to the unique political situation Nepal faces as “the mouse between the dragon and the elephant” (China and India), with new socio-economic realities as it shifts from a monarchy to a federal republic structure. Nepal, as its democracy begins to mature following civil war, is still heavily reliant on India and China for imports, especially petroleum products and other traditional sources of energy which are widely used. The post-war conditions, devastation from the 2015 earthquake, and decreases in rural water access attributed to climate change, have led to rapid urbanization that stresses the resources of places like Kathmandu.
With these political, energy, and environmental considerations in mind, professors like Dr. Binayak Krishna Thapa at Kathmandu University have determined that one of the great challenges is to address disparities in infrastructure by building a green economy that can provide resilience in urban areas and create energy access and sustainability in rural areas, where most of the unelectrified population resides.
Homestay in Solpathana
“Our work in Nepal was one small step toward directly addressing this great challenge of energy access and sustainability”
We were graciously welcomed into the homes of families in the mountain village of Solpathana for 4 days, where we worked with GivePower Foundation to complete a solar-microgrid that would power water pumps. These pumps would take water from the river valley to the top of the mountain where it could be distributed to the residents of the village. This project involved working around language barriers with residents of the village to install 18 kW of solar and huge water reservoirs, connect about 2 km of water pipes, and many other tasks. Each task was made exponentially more difficult by the fact that we were on the side of a mountain with few tools and no machinery. I am still in awe of the seemingly impossible feats that many hands together accomplished.
While the installation was successful, it has historically proven difficult to obtain economic returns for investments in rural electrification. However, this GivePower Foundation project focused on “productive end uses” of renewable energy (i.e. energy for uses beyond household lighting). Focusing on productive end use, a solar installation can create economic opportunity by promoting revenue generation from new or expanded rural enterprises that require electricity. In this case, our project in the village of Solpathana demonstrated this by creating a distribution system for clean water that can be used for improved agriculture practices in addition to clean drinking water in the village.
“My experience in Nepal exceeded my expectations and I highly recommend this trip to anyone interested in sustainable development”
I learned so much and I’m grateful to now have connections to like-minded GREENies and new friends in Nepal. I returned home a better person with a new appreciation for the work of organizations like GivePower.
Special thank you to the GivePower Foundation and The Slattery Family for granting me the Shine On Scholarship that allowed me to attend the Nepal program, get hands-on experience, and reaffirm my commitment to working toward sustainable development in my career.