Small is bountiful in Nepal's energy sector
In terms of scientific development, Nepal ranks low. Its science budget is just 60 million rupees (US$800,000), or 0.08 per cent of the total national budget. Yet, despite poverty, poor governance and ten years of insurgency, a few initiatives in Nepal's energy sector are showing how thinking small can bring big results.
While Nepal's planned 'mega' dam projects have stalled, their 'micro' counterparts have been successful, with some financing local development. Solar power is illuminating remote regions. And since 1992, a small non-governmental organisation has improved rural livelihoods while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by using cattle dung to create fuel.
For any country, its energy supply is a limiting factor. Energy is expensive, generates pollution, but is absolutely necessary.
Many developing countries face the added conundrum of possessing natural resources that could potentially supply large amounts of energy, but lacking the funds, resources and infrastructure to exploit them.
Harnessing the rivers
Nepal is perched high up among the Himalayan mountains. Among the nation's greatest resources are its fast-flowing rivers, which hydropower plants could harness to generate electricity. According to the Nepal Electricity Authority, the country's total hydropower potential is up to 45,000 megawatts, 45 times what is needed to power a US city the size of Seattle.
Gigantic dams could control floods, irrigate fields and generate electricity — not only for Nepal but potentially for India too. But the costs involved are prohibitive and no Nepali government has yet dared launch such projects, which would mean flooding valleys and potentially moving populations.
It is the 'micro' hydropower plants, built on small rivers, that have been most successful. Already, 2,000 of these produce nearly one-sixth of the total electricity produced by hydroelectric plants in Nepal.
Once such plant was set up on a small tributary of the Arun river five years ago by Hari Dahal, a former member of parliament, and business partners. Something nagged Dahal's conscience, and he is now working with colleges in his native town Khandbari to set up a trust that will renovate a 250-kilowatt plant destroyed by Maoist rebels five years ago.
The plan is to sell the power to the national grid and pump the profits into higher education in the district. If successful, this model could be replicated all over Nepal.
In 1992, a non-governmental organisation based in Kathmandu decided to exploit another natural resource to make small-scale changes with large impacts. With Dutch and German support, Biogas Sector Partnership (BSP) set about tapping the energy stored in cattle dung.
The BSP builds and installs family-size biogas plants that use bacteria to generate methane gas from cattle dung in underground 'digesters'. The gas is burnt in kitchen stoves instead of wood or kerosene. It produces less carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas most responsible for climate change, than either of these.
Using methane like this means that 400,000 tonnes of firewood and 800,000 litres of kerosene are no longer needed each year, avoiding 600,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases being emitted into the atmosphere.
Since launching, BSP has built 137,000 biogas plants across Nepal. It plans to build 200,000 more in the next five years. Already, Nepal has overtaken India and China in terms of the number of biogas plants per capita thanks to BSP's work.
BSP's main supporter, a Dutch aid organisation called SNV, is now replicating the project in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Vietnam and parts of Africa.
As well as installing biogas plants, the BSP has helped set up 57 private construction companies to build the plants' 'digesters' and stoves, fittings and biogas lamps. Together, they employ 11,000 people and benefit nearly one million Nepalis.
Priya Devi Timilsina cooks with biogas,
In June 2005, BSP won an Ashden Award for Sustainable Energy for "outstanding achievement in using sustainable energy to improve the quality of life and protecting the environment".
"The award was not just a recognition of the numbers we have achieved," says BSP's Sundar Bajgain. "It is a recognition of our success in using appropriate technology to improve living standards of farmers who have installed biogas and helped save the forests."
The organisation plans to use part of the UK£30,000 (US$53,000) prize to help adapt its digesters to the cooler temperatures of the Mount Everest region.
Prakash Ghimire of BSP says the results of tests conducted at 2,700 meters are promising. By allowing mixed dung slurry to warm up in solar-heated holding areas before it enters the digester and by improving insulation, the temperature inside the plant is high enough to generate gas.
The organisation also hopes to take advantage of the Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which allows industrialised countries to invest in projects in developing countries that reduce greenhouse gas emissions in exchange for more emissions credits.
Nepal ratified the Kyoto Protocol on climate change last month, and is already eligible for US$5 million a year in CDM compensation for constructing the biogas plants.
Elsewhere in Nepal where small hydropower plants are still too expensive, cheap solar cells are becoming popular for lighting.
Some 500 solar cells have already been installed in remote Humla district and money has been raised for another 5,000. The cells charge up a truck battery that can power two small neon lights. The entire installation is built locally and costs less than US$60 per house.
"You have to see what a difference one little fluorescent light makes in the lives of a family that has been living in darkness," says journalist-turned-activist Bhairab Risal, who has convinced several thousand Nepali city-dwellers to donate to his programme.
Using the slogan "'One Nepali family with electricity helps light up one Nepali family without electricity", Risal aims to raise enough money to expand the programme to every house in Humla and on to other remote districts.
Kunda Dixit is the editor of the Nepali Times newspaper in Kathmandu