Rivers, Technology and Society – Dipak Gyawali at the LCEDN Conference, Durham, 23rd – 24th March 2015

Simon Batchelor from Gamos writes on the relevance of Dipak Gyawali’s talk at the 4th LCEDN Conference to the SAMSET project.

I attended an interesting talk by Dipak Gyawali (Interdisciplinary Analysts, Nepal) at the LCEDN 4th Conference, Durham March 23rd and 24th 2015.  Dipak has been both minister of water and minister of energy for the government of Nepal in the past.  Now an academic studying and discussing the water, energy, food nexus, he is best known for his book Rivers, Technology and Society.  He raised a number of points in his talk that seemed particularly relevant to SAMSET.

Nepal is a country with great potential for hydro power and yet it has only 750MW and in recent years is having daily load shedding on 15 hours.  He focused on how long it takes to build a hydro dam, and the complexities of the ecosystem, the role of activists, and the conditionality of the loans.  Indeed he told the story of how he was involved in challenging the bad economics of the World Bank, arguing against a particular dam not from an environmental point of view (against which the World Bank would argue they would mitigate the environment effects, and then 15 years later we would all see that the mitigation didn’t work) but using economics to argue against the massive investment and delayed outcomes – bad economics was a convincing argument.

But arguing against something is not the way forward for a country.  So Dipak gave us some very concrete examples of possible ways forward.  He talked about the emerging role of decentralised electricity, which takes so much less time to plan and implement.  He noted that in addition to the 750MW national grid, there is also 750MW of Diesel (and Petrol) generators, being run by retail outlets, shopping centres and homes!  Where the grid costs 7 to 8 rupees per kWh, the people who feel they need control of their own electric destiny are paying between 30 to 80 rupees for their diesel generation.  This indicates a massive willingness to pay – if it is attached to reliability.  And Dipak pointed out that from first discussions to actual switching on in 2011, the 750Mw of hydro took more than 70 years; the 750MW of diesel has been thought of and switched on in the last 10 years.

800px-Kaligandaki_Hydro

“Kaligandaki Hydro” by Krish Dulal – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kaligandaki_Hydro.jpg#/media/File:Kaligandaki_Hydro.jpg

So how can we leverage this willingness to pay and this idea of decentralised but reliable electricity?  Of course his example is of carbon based diesel; it would be good if the decentralised reliable energy could come from clean energy.  In Nepal, there are regulatory difficulties in connecting renewables to the grid.  There are 46MW of solar PVs in the country, and studies quoted by Dipak suggest that with a reasonable and a more bureaucratic light feed in tariff, people would install 250MW within 6 months.  His views from Nepal illustrate how ‘business as usual’ can lead to a strange energy landscape, with people paying more than necessary for their energy when a change in policy and regulatory framework could rapidly change the scene.

He also talked about alternative models for funding smaller responses.  Small hydro has not really been very cost effective and yet stepping out of the box and looking at it from different angle can completely change that.  He talked about hydro and transport, and I confess that I thought ‘How is that possible?, how can you link hydro and transport?’.  In Nepal people carry items up mountains by foot, and it can take five hours or more to get goods up to a village.   Ropeways can offer an electric pulley transport system.     Connecting a hydro to a ropeway can make the hydro economically justifiable, working on the ropeway during the day and then its use for lighting in the evening for the community doesn’t even need to be charged.

In SAMSET we have noted the difference between South African municipalities who buy electricity wholesale and are responsible for and gain revenue from distribution, and Uganda and Ghana where municipalities don’t have such responsibility.  In Nepal, Dipak introduced communitisation of electricity, where communities were enabled to mobilise to purchase electricity wholesale and take responsibility for distribution.  Some 250 communities operate in this way now, and theft of electricity has dropped to zero (since the wholesale has to match the distribution and any community member attempting theft is soon identified and sanctioned).

Interestingly at this point Dipak spent some time on the political economy, noting that almost all sides of the political spectrum do not like the communitisation idea.  The Maoists were said to not like it because it wasn’t through the party system, and the far right didn’t like it because they liked to gift things to the people, in order to get their political support – the communitisation empowered the people outside the patronage system.  Dipak also mentioned that the centralists were lobbied by vested interested to not explore these interesting alternative models!

It was a very interesting talk.  I cannot guarantee I have remembered everything accurately, and numbers may be slightly off, but I felt particularly his focus on decentralised reliable energy, and the willingness of people to pay for reliability, was relevant to all our SAMSET locations.

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