Is small really cost effective?

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Coal, oil and large hydel plants have always been associated with power generation, while small hydro systems have been shunned because of a belief that the "smaller the size, the higher the cost". On the face of it, this is true: In some small hydro schemes in the Uttar Pradesh hills, the cost of power supply ranges from Rs 30,000 to Rs 60,000 per kilowatt, whereas in coal-based thermal plants, it is as low as Rs 10,000 per kilowatt.

However, the environmental cost of carbon dioxide emissions and waste disposal is not reflected in the cost of thermal power generation. And, with pressure increasing on fossil fuels, small hydro is emerging as a clean and renewable source of power, especially for remote areas.

In Uttar Pradesh, the nonconventional energy development agency has reduced the costs of operating and maintaining small hydro plants by training village youth to manage power plants in place of highly paid engineers and technicians. But costs can be reduced further by standardising equipment, simplifying civil works, using sturdier machines and material and introducing computers and automated control and safety systems.

Padamshree H C Visveswaraya, vice chancellor of University of Roorkee and an ardent advocate of small hydro power, says, "When small hydro projects are integrated with other activities (such as mill grinding and sawing) or networked with other power systems, the economics would definitely be more favourable than conventional systems."