Lighting up Nepal’s Future by Marrying its Hydro and Solar Sectors
The Himalayan nation is known to have over 6,000 rivers and 96 per cent of its electricity needs are met through hydroelectric power. But, with climate change, as temperatures rise, glaciers melt and rainfall patterns become erratic, it is important to adopt an energy mix that promotes solar power generation. And this can be achieved alongside Nepal’s hydropower projects.
Nidhi Jamwal 11 April 2023 10:31 AM GMT
Hundreds of glass-covered panels mounted on large iron frames are neatly lined up on an open patch of sloppy terrain, glinting in the sunlight. Surrounding them are tree covered hills and the Trishuli river flows barely a couple of metres away. Nepal's largest, and the only government-owned, solar power plant in Nuwakot, over 70 kilometres from Kathmandu, the capital city, is picturesque.
Having a solar farm in a mountainous region with solar panels installed at seven different locations (due to lack of sufficient land at one location) deserves applause.
The 25 megawatt peak (MWp) solar project began operation from January 15 this year and has been lighting up homes in Nepal ever since. On sunny days, the project, which is spread over 500 ropian (25 hectares) of land, can produce 100,000 units of electricity daily. This power is transmitted to Devighat Hydropower Station, located a stone throw away, from where it is fed into the national grid and supplied to households in Kathmandu.
Beyond harnessing ‘green’ power, the Nuwakot solar farm is crucial from the point of view of the energy mix in Nepal, which, at present, is heavily dependent on hydropower to meet most of its energy needs.
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According to Nepal Economic Forum, 96.2 per cent of the country’s installed capacity is from hydropower, 3.7 per cent from thermal and 0.1 per cent from solar plants. Nepal’s total electricity production capacity has reached 2,577.48 MW, of which 2,492.95 MW is connected to the national grid, while the remaining 84.53 MW is off-grid supply.
The Nuwakot solar project is part of the Nepal government’s commitment towards increasing the share of solar energy in the country’s total energy profile. The energy mix is critical considering climate change is leading to erratic rainfall/ precipitation, which is a direct threat to water resources, including hydropower generation.
For instance, this year Nepal has had one of the driest winters. On an average, between December and February, the country receives about 60 millimetre (mm) of winter precipitation, which is crucial for both farming activities and electricity generation. But this winter season (till February 11), the Himalayan country received only 7.9 mm of rainfall.
It is ironic how during the monsoons, the country is electricity-surplus as its rivers are in full spate and hydropower generation is at its peak. But, in the winters, the scenario is reversed. Nepal faces acute power deficit and is forced to buy expensive power from India.
The difference in the cost of electricity was elaborated upon by the plant manager of Trishuli Hydropower Station in Nuwakot who said that as against locally produced electricity, which costs Rs 1.6 per unit, the one imported from India costs up to Rs 16 per unit.
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Incidentally, since 2021, Nepal has been selling its surplus hydro-generated power during the monsoon season to India. But continues to face shortages in the dry season. And things go awry when winter rains give the country a miss like they did this year.
Clearly, the Himalayan nation needs to create an energy mix so that its over dependence on hydropower is reduced. And this is where solar power projects, such as the Nuwakot solar farm, have a key role to play. In February this year, the Nepal Electricity Authority invited bids to develop 100 MW solar projects in the country.
At present, Nepal has 58.14 MW total grid tied solar power capacity. Of this 25 MW is the Nuwakot farm owned by Nepal Electricity Authority and the rest 33.14 MW is by independent power producers. The government has already given construction licences for solar projects worth 133.56 MW. Meanwhile, a survey licence for solar projects of 1,244.99 MW has been issued.
Nepal aims to produce 15,000 MW power by 2030 of which 15 per cent (2,250 MW) is set to be met through renewable energy, including solar and wind energy projects. The present solar installed capacity is 58.14 MW only, and till date no commercial-scale wind power plants have been developed in the country.
It is estimated that Nepal has a solar potential of 50,000 terawatt-hours per year (1 terawatt = 1,000,000 MW), which is 100 times larger than its hydro resource and 7,000 times larger than its current electricity consumption. But there are challenges of technology transfer, trained human resources, power tariff, etc.
Also, solar projects require a lot of physical space, which often leads to conflict with the local communities who are dependent on land and farming for their livelihoods.
The Nuwakot solar project is constructed on land that was already acquired by the government for the Devighat Hydropower Station. Yet, concerns are often raised that the solar power generated at Nuwakot is transmitted to urban dwellers in Kathmandu.
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In this context, IUCN’s recent study, Sustainable Energy Transitions in the Ganges River Basin: Baseline and Scenarios, is important. It looks at the current situation of renewable energy transition in the Ganges basin and provides an in-depth profile of how Nepal, Bangladesh, and India are each building up their national energy systems, and explores existing policy and market trends, gaps, and challenges related to regional coordination on electricity and river conservation.
The draft report of the study, which was discussed during a meeting organised in Kathmandu in February this year by IUCN and The Asia Foundation, mentions floating solar photovoltaic system as an attractive option for Nepal which has an existing hydropower baseload and high solar power potential.
Floating solar installations sit on the surface of the water and can be designed to shift as the reservoir levels rise or drop seasonally. It is estimated that one MWp of floating hydro could prevent water evaporation loss of 8,000-metre cube per year.
Given the number of dams that are currently operational and already under construction — some of which have significant reservoir land area — Nepal has considerable potential for floating solar, notes the IUCN draft report.
In 2020, the Nepal Electricity Authority hired a subsidiary company to do an initial analysis and identified the site for a potential 10 MW pilot project at Indrasharowar dam. It remains to be seen now if Nepal can successfully marry its vast hydro sector with the sunshine sector.