Energy revolution


FEB 05 – A recent decision to install a 40MW diesel thermal plant to minimise loadshedding shows a complete lack of vision by the government. The most surprising thing about this decision is that it came just a day after the conclusion of a renewable energy expo and during renewable energy week. This decision, if executed, will miss key opportunities to promote clean and renewable energy in the country. It will also deal a blow to Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai’s commitment to promote renewable energy, and the expo organisers’ enthusiasm for the wider use of renewable energy in Nepal.

A diesel thermal plant is no panacea for loadshedding. It is neither economically feasible nor environmentally desirable. A typical 60-80MW plant running at 85 percent load factor consumes approximately 230-250 litres of diesel per MW per hour. If the plant is operated all day, it will cost the government more than Rs 20 million daily. Some Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) officials agree that installing a 40MW diesel plant costs about Rs 5 billion. And the energy production cost from such plants will be Rs 25-30 per unit. This is a very high rate compared to energy generated by other solutions.
Additionally, as the price of diesel is continuously rising, the production cost of electricity from diesel plants will also rise in the future. In addition, the large difference between peak and average loads will further complicate the situation. It will force diesel generators to run at a low load factor, shortening their operating life, resulting in frequent maintenance and inviting high maintenance costs. In many countries, the low load factor problem is often addressed by integrating diesel generators with renewable sources—either solar or wind systems. Unfortunately, Nepal doesn’t have such infrastructure in place.

Diesel plants produce air, solid waste, water and noise pollution. The major air pollutants generated are soot and particulate matter, nitric oxide (NO), sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrocarbons (HC). Heavy fuel leads to slightly higher NO and CO emissions. Light fuel gives higher emissions of HC. As diesel fuel typically contains a higher proportion of sulphur, this also interferes with diesel combustion and emission control strategies. During operation, plants generate toxic sludge and waste water containing high concentrations of oil and grease. Diesel plants are also notorious for noise pollution. And, as diesel exhaust contains known or suspected cancer-causing substances, such as benzene, arsenic and formaldehyde, plant operators and people living near these plants could face greater health risks.

Energy security
We are already spending a significant amount of foreign exchange on importing fossil fuel from India. A diesel plant means s further increase in government spending and greater reliance on imports and dependence on fossil fuels. Due to rapid economic growth, India itself is using large quantities of diesel to generate electric power. Therefore, in times of energy crisis there, diesel may be less immediately available in Nepal. Two events that happened recently are shining examples of these concerns. Last week, the Hetauda-based diesel plant stopped generating power as it ran out of diesel. On Jan 19, India abruptly decided to cut the export of 30MW of power to Nepal. As a result, loadshedding hours increased to 14 hours from 12 daily. Therefore, it is very likely that this might happen again in the future.

Nepal is blessed with water, approximately 300 sunny days per year and lots of wind. Hence, Nepal’s energy needs can be met entirely by hydro, solar or wind power. Our first priority must be hydropower, but considering the immediate power needs to minimise loadshedding, solar power would appear to be the obvious winner. Solar technology has been identified as the most environment-friendly technology which requires only sunlight. Compared with other renewable energy technologies, the cost of solar equipment is also falling sharply whereas the price of diesel is going up in the global market.
Similarly, with recent advancements in the efficiency of solar cells, the land area required per MW of installed solar plant has also come down from approximately two hectares to about one hectare. These developments indicate that solar energy has a bright future. Solar technology has some limitations too, like battery management; but these limitations can be overcome by proper planning. For example, in India, with proper planning, solar power systems are gradually replacing costly diesel generators. India’s central government has even set a target to generate about 22,000MW of solar energy by 2022. Recently, a 200MW solar farm in Charanka, Gujarat, one of the biggest solar farms in India, was built within 16 months. Therefore, solar farms of 40-50 MW capacity can be easily built within three-four months in Nepal.
However, for this to happen, the government must rise above its diesel hangover and be ready to include wind and solar energy in the country’s energy mix. Since the government has decided to provide a Rs 5.4 billion grant to the NEA to limit loadshedding to 12 hours daily, why not invest this money in alternative solutions like wind or stand-alone solar or solar-hydro hybrid systems? A solar-hydro hybrid system can be installed near storage-type hydropower projects where the power produced by the PV could be utilised in the day time and hydropower could complement power during the night time. With currently available technologies, solar energy can be generated at a cost of Rs 16-18 per unit, which is half the cost of energy generated by diesel plants. In India, the Gujrat state government has even guaranteed Rs 24 per unit for the first 12 years of operation to solar producers.
While inaugurating the renewable energy expo, Prime Minister Bhattarai complained that no foreign investors were showing interest in investing in the renewable energy sector on a commercial scale. This is not true. If the government embraces wind or solar on par with diesel fuel sources in the country’s energy mix, Nepal could become another major destination for renewable energy development on a commercial scale. We can learn this from India. When the Indian government put renewable energy into the country’s energy mix through policies to support its development on a commercial scale, India’s combined solar power capacity soared to nearly 1,000MW in 2012 from about 20MW in 2010. Looking at such trends, India seems set for an energy revolution. It would be very unfortunate if Nepal were required to purchase solar energy from India.

Pokhrel is the general secretary of LEADERS Nepal

Posted on: 2013-02-06 09:12

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