The cost of light


Next week as Nepalis celebrate Tihar, the festival of lights, few will remember that it will mark the second anniversary of the end of paralysing power cuts.

Sometimes lasting up to 18 hours a day, the load-shedding increased the people’s hardship and crippled the economy. The man credited for ending power cuts, Kulman Ghising of the Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) said this week: “Light up your houses this Tihar, there is enough electricity.”

The NEA estimates that demand next week will peak at 1,270 MW, but Ghising says there is enough supply from domestic generation and Indian imports to meet it. 

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The reason for Ghising’s confidence is that 30MW has been added this year, his efforts to manage supply and cut leakage have increased capacity, and the Kulekhani reservoir is full. Even all this would not have ensured enough power – the real reason there will not be a dark Tihar is because of electricity imports from India.

This year, Nepal’s electricity demand reached 1,281MW, but domestic generation never exceeded 525MW. The shortfall was made up by importing up to 505MW of electricity from coal-fired thermal plants in Bihar. Even with that, industries and some districts still suffered power cuts. 

The end to load-shedding has come at great environmental and economic cost. The average per capita carbon footprint of Nepalis is still low, but it has doubled because of fossil energy bought from India. The electricity import bill this year added Rs20 billion to the Rs150 billion Nepal was already spending to buy petroleum products from India.

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The government defends the power import, arguing that it is only a stop-gap measure and transmission lines built to import electricity from India can later be used to export Nepal’s surplus power to the Indian market.

Former Minister of Water Resources Dipak Gyawali says that is not likely to happen because Nepal’s electricity demand is growing 100MW per year, and there is a lot of suppressed demand that not even big projects like Tama Kosi (440MW) can cover.

Instead of building cross-border transmission lines, Gyawali urges the NEA to focus on connecting small hydro projects to the national grid to meet future domestic growth in consumption for cooking and transportation.

Sadly, even while importing electricity generated from dirty coal from India, NEA cannot buy clean hydropower from private plants like the 6MW Khani Khola because they do not have transmission lines connecting them to the grid.

Says one hydropower investor: “This is the irony of it all: we want to sell our electricity to NEA, but it is buying power from India.” 

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