Nepal’s 1st hydroelectric plant is a museum piece

Reservoir pond of the Pharping hydropower project 12 km south of Kathmandu Valley. Photo: ASMIT RAJBHANDARI

It was 6:30pm on 22 May 1911, and the sun had just set in Kathmandu when King Prithvi Bir Bikram Shah arrived at Tundikhel to turn on a switch to light Nepal’s first electric lamp.

Nepal was the second country in Asia to install a hydroelectric power plant, commissioned by Prime Minister Chandra Shumsher Rana, who named the project after himself: Chandra Jyoti. Chandra Shumshere had visited England eight years previously, and this was part of his grand plan to modernise Nepal with technology.

Besides electricity, he established Nepal’s first college, built metal suspension bridges all over the country, commissioned a cargo ropeway from Kathmandu to the Tarai. He sent architects to Europe, and engineers and horticulturists for training to Japan.

Construction of the 500kW plant in Pharping 12km south of Kathmandu began in 1907 with British engineers, and took four years to complete. All the turbines and penstock pipes were shipped to Calcutta, brought overland to Bhimphedi and then had to be carried on porter back over the mountains to the site.

Built to light the palaces of the Ranas, homes of courtiers and some street lights, the power station stored water from two springs, in Satmule and Sesh Narayan, in a circular reservoir. The Ranas first tested the electricity in a house in Khokana before connecting the wires tot their palaces, to ensure it was safe.

Under supervision of the prime minister’s clan, the power plant was built by Tilkikram and Bakhat Bahadur from the Nepal Army, the main engineer for the power house was Kishore Narsingh Rana. Two engineers from England, ‘Barnau Puwante’ and a certain ‘Mr Linzale’, were also involved in the construction.

In 1911, it had been only three decades since the world’s first hydropower plant had been installed on the Fox River in Wisconsin in 1882, and a year after China built its first hydropower plant in 1912 in Yunnan province.

Despite this early start, Nepal got around to setting up its second hydropower project only 28 years later, a 640kW plant in Sundarijal in 1939. For a country with such a vast potential for hydropower, it would take Nepal another half-century to produce just 1MW of electricity.

Since 1911 when Pharping was built, Nepal has managed to produce only 1,400MW of power from its rivers, not even 2% of its total potential. Since most of the plants are of the run-of-the-river type, electricity production fluctuates with water level on rivers. This spring, due to a long winter drought, for instance, Nepal is importing nearly half its peak hour demand from thermal power plants India.

Sadly, the history of Nepal’s oldest hydropower plant has now been almost forgotten. Although the government declared the power plant a ‘living heritage’ site in 1911, not much has been done to preserve the area. The power plant could be brought back into running condition, even as just a demonstration unit.

The power house, the royal guest house and other buildings here are part of Nepal’s heritage, but are crumbling. Two 250kw generators have great historical significance, but are not properly preserved, metal pipes more than 100 years old lie rusting near the reservoir.

For most of its functioning life, Pharping generated power for only three hours every night. Later, even when the reservoir started being used to supply drinking water to Lalitpur, it was generating electricity for one hour every evening.

There is a masterplan to preserve Pharping as a Live Energy Museum with the old building renovated to house a centre for hydropower development, as well as research into renewable energy sources like solar and wind.

None of that has taken off, but 22 May is still marked as National Energy Day to pay homage to Nepal’s hydropower potential.

This story was first published on The Third Pole.

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