04 May 2010
Nepal's right to energy movement: lessons for super-grids of the future
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Sorry for the long silence in the blog space. But I was fatigued and rather frustrated with the same old arguments and going-nowhere debates. So in the last few months we have been busy with new research to bring different perspectives to the old problems -- how will we share the increasingly scarce budget in an increasingly at-risk carbon constrained world.

I am writing now to share with you recent research of developments in Nepal, which we have published in this issue of our magazine, Down To Earth. We are excited to tell this story about how communities have demanded their right to energy – a development, which we believe has wide-ranging and important ramification for our world. It is important to note that as yet, the right to energy, unlike the right to food or even the right to water has not been negotiated in many parts of our world.

We believe that given the threat of climate change and given the fact that energy and greenhouse gas emissions are so intrinsically linked, this issue is critical. In our parts of the world, where vast areas remain energy deprived, not only have we to establish the right to development in global negotiations, but also fight for the the intra-national right to development and energy.

My colleague Aditya Batra in his travels found people in Nepal are exercising their right to energy, granted through a notification of the government. This programme, which allows communities the right to energy, provided they pay certain charges for grid connectivity and take over the management (including billing) is reshaping the ways in which electricity is distributed and managed across rural Nepal — all the way from a mother’s group in North Pokhra to a forest users’ group in Bangesal to a Thame Bijli Company that has trained 11 Sherpas as linesmen and meter readers.

This is not to say that Nepal has enough power for all. It is crippled by hours of power cuts. But the question is if there is some power, who should get it. Should power belong only to urban and connected Nepal or the entire country? People say they have the equal claim on whatever is generated.

The question, now is what can be done to generate more power, so that not only access is guaranteed but also electricity. We find interesting leads here for the future. The country’s electricity generation plans are coming a full cycle. A few years ago, Nepal was the donor’s dream, as far as micro-electricity projects were concerned – microhydel to solar – all was and is being tried out with varying success.

But people wanted reliable power and also the equal right to the promise of state-generated electricity. The electricity rights movement brought the grid. But now there is the grid but no power, as large centralised power projects, planned for supply into the grid have not been built as yet. Ironically, the coming of the grid can also displace micro-projects, which would be a double whammy for people.

The question now is how can the centralised and connected grid be used to both bring and take power from villages. Can Nepal generate its power in a decentralised manner as well as centralised manner and interact it all on the grid? What will be the technical specifications of this super grid – a grid capable of being supplied power from millions of decentralised sources and capable of delivering to quality power across the region?

Our research finds that there are some nascent experiments in the country to do this. But much more will have to be done. There are many lessons here for other countries, like India, keen on building decentralised systems and reinventing energy futures. But for us, the most important lesson is that the right to basic energy must be universal and must be guaranteed.