Category Archives: Energy Security Nepal

Obituary: in memory of Akkal Man Nakarmi, who designed ground breaking water turbines

Article originally published in the Kathamandu Post on 21.02.2017

Feb 21, 2017- Not known to many outside the renewable energy fraternity, Akkal Man Nakarmi was a prominent innovator in conserving, protecting, and modernising traditional water harvesting technologies and the most influential individual contributor to micro-hydro development in Nepal. Mr Nakarmi passed away earlier this month at the age of 71. People who knew him in the renewable energy circle have posted messages of condolence in remembrance of his services to the sector. It was his design of the Multi-Purpose Power Unit (MPPU) that improved on traditional Pani Ghattas; with the use of metal buckets, a metal shaft, and a pipe in place of the chute, his innovation tripled the output efficiency of traditional ghattas. This was the first major upgrade for this ubiquitous grain grinding technology, also known as the Norse Wheel, which spread from West Asia to Southeast Asia starting around the seventh century BC.

Mr Nakarmi was an extraordinary individual who paved the way for innovations in the design and application of water turbines in Nepal. He was also pivotal in preserving and upgrading traditional technology practices that carry value and wisdom passed down from generation to generation. With the skills and wisdom inherited from his forefathers, Mr Nakarmi linked his classical modern education with indigenous knowledge—both of which played an equal part in his work and success. Today, thousands of Improved Water Mills and micro-hydro power plants are a result of the lifelong work of Mr Nakarmi.

Modernising what was traditional

In March 2012, I was writing a conference paper on the role of traditional knowledge systems on climate mitigation in Nepal. It occurred to me that having a personal conversation with Mr Nakarmi on the evolution of traditional water mills would be helpful. One of my friends gave me his contact details. I dialed his office number but it was his son, Tirtha Man Nakarmi, who picked up the phone. He runs Kathmandu Metal Industries that his father established. I asked if he could connect me to his father. He agreed to arrange a meeting at his residence. However, upon arrival I was told that the older Mr Nakarmi was bedridden with severe back pains and could not meet me. I didn’t insist on meeting him. Instead, his son volunteered to answer my questions.

Arguably, the first attempt to radically innovate and enhance traditional technology practices in Nepal was made by Akkal Man’s father Gopal Man Nakarmi, who designed the first metal water bucket wheel in Nepal in the early 1940s. Like father, like son. With a Swiss engineer, Andreas Bachmann, Akkal Man explored ways to upgrade traditional ghattas by varying heads and flows. That is when he successfully designed a low-cost multi-purpose power unit in 1967. Together with Surendra Mathema, Akkal Man also developed the Peltric set—a compact electricity-generating unit made by fitting a small diameter Pelton Turbine runner on the shaft of an induction generator. A prolific inventor with tremendous ingenuity, Akkal Man made scores of innovations to the cross-flow turbine and small propeller turbines. The 50 years he committed to his work is also a testimony of his concerted efforts to safeguard and modernise intrinsic traditional technologies that were the culmination of centuries of practices and experiences.

Easy technology, hidden dangers

The history of diesel operated agro-processing mills in Nepal is not more than 70 years old. It was only introduced after 1956 when Nepal’s first highway—Tribhuvan Rajmarg—was constructed. This highway gave the Tarai motorable access to Kathmandu, thereby instigating a new era of consumerism in Nepal. Consequently, the state assisted the proliferation of new diesel operated machines and systems in the 70s and 80s without investigating methods to modernise local resources and indigenous technology. This move caused many people to abandon traditional water mills and resulted in the exponential use of oil products by many (previously) self-reliant rural societies of Nepal. Today, it is remarkable that almost half of Nepal’s 25,000 ghattas have been upgraded to the Improved Water Mill using the MPPU design, enabling them to additionally drive rice hullers and oil mills, and generate electricity. This was a significant intervention to combat the proliferation of diesel mills in the rural hills.

Today, many traditional technologies and practices still run the risk of disappearing due to the use of modern technology that is more easily available and efficient. While the merits of modern science are undeniable, unchecked proliferation of western machines that give no regard to preserving and improving indigenous practice should be curbed. By doing so, the self-reliant and resilient nature of traditional rural societies of Nepal can be preserved to some degree. The disadvantages of these modern technologies were shown when our society had to return to basics for survival when all modern facilities became dysfunctional during the recent blockade. The prevalent method of bringing new western machines to Nepal—entailing a mere transfer of technology without weaving them into the fabrics of traditional society—is wrong. Akkal Man’s work was groundbreaking in the way he managed to intertwine modern science with traditional technology. Many will miss this prolific inventor.

Article originally published in The Kathmandu Post on 21.02.2017. Author appreciates the inputs of Mr Bikash Pandey, Director of Winrock International, Washington DC, to this article.

A twist in the pipeline: Nepal’s Fuel Crisis and It’s Foreign Policy Conundrum

Feb 22, 2016- Nepal’s recent fuel crisis originated from the unofficial Indian blockade. The country’s subsequent attempt to cement closer ties with China brought more domestic and foreign policy riddles to the country. Recent turn of events pose a number of questions. How would the KP Oli government have dealt with the Madhesi protestors had the blockade not been there? Would PM Oli have visited China before India? What different measures would the Madhesi protestors have adopted to show their dissent over the recently promulgated constitution, if the country was completely energy sufficient? There are no easy answers to all these questions, but they are all entangled in Nepal’s sole dependence on India for petroleum imports and its long-standing inability to exploit domestic energy potential.
While the Madhesi issues primarily stemmed from the dissatisfaction over the proposed federal division of the states and power-sharing in the country’s new constitution, Nepal’s crisis grew deeper when India sided with the protesters by tightening the fuel supplies. India is by far the largest trading partner of Nepal accounting for 64 percent of its foreign trade. The Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) is the sole supplier of petroleum products to Nepal. As it started cutting off supplies to Nepal, the fuel crisis started to hurt the economy severely, giving rise to black marketeering, a sudden hike in commodity prices and eventually a decline in development activities. Various sectors of the economy as well as reconstruction efforts suffered under the crisis.

Help from the north
Despite Deputy Prime Minister Kamal Thapa’s trips to New Delhi to persuade it to lift the blockade, IOC continued to slash supplies. As the Nepal government was heavily criticised for failing to abate the crisis, it was left to seek every potential alternative and assistance from every possible direction. Despite the abundant potential of home-grown generation with arguably over 40,000 MW of hydropower potential from its water resources alone, Nepal’s energy situation is quite depressing. Around 30 percent of the population still does not have access to electricity and even those with access suffer from as much as 15 hours of power cuts a day. On the other hand, supply side constraints and policy inconsistencies are putting stress on hydropower projects under construction. The message is clear: Nepal lacked the ability to deal with the recent fuel crisis without external assistance.

China came to Nepal’s rescue, providing 1,000 metric tones of oil in grant as a symbolic gesture to cope with the gloomy fuel situation. Nepal on its part was more willing to explore possibilities of obtaining fuel from China on a long-term basis and keen to enter an oil trade agreement to import as much as one third of its fuel supplies. Many applauded the move as an attempt to end the Indian dominance on petroleum supplies to Nepal. And, that stirred new foreign policy debates in both Nepal and India. Certain section of Indian parliamentarians, media and foreign policy experts in New Delhi accused the Indian government of pushing Nepal closer to China while unnecessarily trying to micromanage Nepal’s internal affairs.

However, the difficult mountainous trade routes, logistic hurdles and high cost of trade made it hard to bring in fuel from China. On the other hand, the Nepal government’s distress was visible, as it was also worried that a new deal with China might worsen its ties with India, which could impose a tighter blockade.

Dependence continues
The likes and dislikes of Nepal’s southern neighbour are often speculated to be the fulcrum of the stability of every government in Nepal. Evidently, more than dealing with the Madhesi leaders at home, the Nepal government was busy sending its envoys and using its diplomatic channels to woo New Delhi. China may also have been a little sceptical of Nepal’s aberrant diplomatic exercises and political inconsistencies and assumed that Nepal would eventually return to the status quo. Nepal energy’s crisis turned out to be a new triangular foreign policy conundrum between Nepal, India and China.

When viewed in light of Nepal’s long-time fuel dependence on India, the recent crisis, however, is less surprising. It is reminiscent of a similar episode of 14 months of Indian blockade of Nepal in 1989. Nepal had a relatively moderate growth rate of over 7 percent in 1988, which later dropped to about 4.3 percent in 1989. But Nepal had relatively smaller fuel dependence in 1989 than it has today. That gave a bit of a breathing space to the then Prime Minister Marich Man Singh Shrestha to negotiate bilateral issues with India and was probably the very reason Nepal somehow managed to survive a blockade for over a year. A lot has changed in between. There has been an increase in Nepali population by 10 million and a four-fold rise in per capita petroleum consumption-from 0.01 kg to 0.04 kg of oil equivalent—since 1989.

With the recent 80 MW power import deal with India and plans to import an additional 580 MW by next year, this huge energy dependence will continue to constrain Nepal’s ability to negotiate any bilateral issues with India and could further limit its capacity to maintain a balanced relationship between China and India. The bleak energy situation at home and the dependence on India would neither allow Prime Minister Oli to comfortably negotiate past treaties and agreements with the southern neighbour, nor discuss other bilateral issues, let alone question the recent blockade. Like most of the previous visits of Nepal’s prime ministers, it will be another ‘friendly visit’, which the Nepal government will invariably claim as having set a new milestone in the history of Nepal-India relations.

A Twist in the Pipeline: the article was originally published in The Kathmandu Post on 22.02.2016

Seize the day: Levying renewable energy surcharge on imported fuels

Nepal’s current fuel crisis is a mockery to its abundant indigenous energy sources. Rising trade deficit of petroleum products amounting to 14 to 18 percent of the total imports in recent years is proof of how we are mismanaging our energy supplies. And, if we were not reminded enough of this worrisome dependence, our energy vulnerabilities have become loud and clear thanks to the unofficial Indian blockade. Going by the energy manifestos and promises of our big and small political parties, Nepal would have been an energy surplus country by now even if a quarter of their promises had been realised. But our short-lived governments have never been able to plan anything tangible with long-term goals in mind. For some years now, it has been a tradition of all the governments to declare an energy crisis along with some plans to address it. But their temptation to resolve the energy crisis during their tenures surprise industry experts, and the media often lampoon them. With the current trajectory of growing energy demand in the country, our coming years will be no different unless we put real efforts to invest in domestic energy production. Serious thinking with clear vision can gradually shift the country away from a petroleum-led economy towards home-grown, sustained energy.

Global examples
Unlike in the 1980s, countries today are still continuing to boost their investment in renewables even in the face of cheaper oil. This is what economists call ‘energy security’, which the International Energy Agency (IEA) defines as the uninterrupted availability of energy sources at an affordable price. Global geopolitics and cartels affect oil supplies more than the simple economics of demand and supply. And, with the outlook of growing energy demand in emerging economies like India and China in the coming decades in the face of depleting oil reserves, continued reliance on foreign imports is risky for oil importing nations. Furthermore, economies of scale are driving the cost of renewable energy technologies down, tempting countries to invest in these ‘new technologies’. China recently unveiled its target to add 20-GW of wind power installations and 15-GW of photovoltaic installations in 2016 alone, with a goal of making non-fossil fuel’s share of total energy around 20 percent by 2030. This year it also started adding a renewable energy surcharge on electricity generated from coal-fired plants to boost investments in renewables.

Nepal’s energy crisis and the current spell of a low oil era present a good opportunity for the country to push for more investments in domestic production. A renewable energy levy on petroleum imports can create such fiscal savings needed to invest in the sector.

Such additional levies on oil imports while the price of oil is low, rather than making such adjustments when the oil price is already high, would hurt consumers less. The government can get away with less criticism and political backlash than it normally gets.

Multiple benefits
Nepal’s import of major petroleum products increased to 1,209,187 kilo litres in the last fiscal year from 374,198 kilo litres in 2005. It is estimated that a 12 percent annualised growth will be witnessed on these imports for another five years, so an additional surcharge of 10 rupees per litre alone can yield over Rs76 billion, equivalent to the cost of building five hydropower projects of the size of Madhya Bhote Koshi (102MW).

Nepal imported 259, 299 MT of Liquefied Petroleum Gas last year. A simple computation of an additional levy of 100 rupees a cylinder results in a saving of almost two billion Nepali rupees. This equates to the money the Nepal government roughly spent last year in subsidising over 150,000 small renewable energy technology installations in the country that will stay for another 15 to 20 years to come. This sheds light on the potential savings a few rupees of additional levy on petroleum imports could yield. The government can use these savings in complementary sectors. The switch to a greater share of renewables will not only bring favourable trade implications with potential decrease in oil imports, it will also—as an analysis by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) indicates—start to have ripple effects with improved energy security to achieve multiple socio-economic targets due to greater reliance on indigenous sources. The latest report ‘Measuring Energy Benefits: Measuring the Economies’ by IRENA released this year provides compelling evidence on the impact of renewable energy deployment on welfare. It points out that the ability of renewables to stimulate economy, improve welfare and boost employment is three to four times larger than its impact on GDP.

However, Nepal’s dilemma is different. Any upward adjustments on petroleum products are not only difficult, but it would be easily criticised as an insensitive move to the already supply-constrained people who have been hit by one tragedy after the other.  So assuming that the government resolves the Madhesi issue and that the petroleum imports normalise, Nepal Oil Corporation should be able to set its tariffs right to make some savings. Even the consumers need to be ready to take some pain in the short run for long-term gains. Unless we scale up our investments to exploit a variety of home-grown generation to the scale needed to reduce petroleum imports, regular episodes of energy crisis will likely continue and further erode the economy. The need to alter this trend is long overdue.

The article was initially published in The Kathmandu Post on 09-02-2016