January 29, 2017, by Paul Brown
Micro-hydro power is bringing energy to remote communities in north Pakistan.
Image: Courtesy of Sarhad Rural Support Programme
Small-scale hydro schemes can transform the lives of remote communities and cut carbon emissions, but they need high-level support.
LONDON, 29 January, 2017 – It’s hard to appreciate the difference electricity makes to your life, unless you’ve ever had to live entirely without it.
What could you not manage without? Light at the flick of a switch? Your mobile phone? Your computer?
Almost certainly you won’t have considered alternatives. But many millions of people have to. Can’t turn on the washing machine, perhaps? Then it’s a day spent down by a freezing cold stream beating your family’s clothes with a rock to get the dirt out.
For women in the Himalayas who’ve lived their whole lives without electricity it’s the escape from this kind of drudgery that small-scale hydro schemes bring. Later they get their first windows on the outside world: radio, television, a telephone.
In the remote mountains of Pakistan, where hundreds of villages have never had electricity, more than 190 micro-hydro schemes have transformed the lives of communities. Electricity has arrived for 365,000 people.
Because it is an earthquake area and often cut off by snow or floods, no-one has ever tried to connect it to the national grid. But in 2004 Sarhad Rural Support Programme (SRSP), the largest non-government organisation in north-west Pakistan, which aims to reduce poverty, began to install small-scale hydro schemes in villages across this part of the Himalayas.
Its goal was to make electricity accessible to communities whose lives, already overwhelmed by isolation, had been made more miserable by floods, war and terrorism.
SRSP provides the initial expertise on where to site the earthquake-proof generator and how to install and operate it, but the management and maintenance is the community’s responsibility from the start. Once the scheme is up and running the villagers get to own the system too, and benefit from the income generated.
The result is a remarkable change for everyone, particularly the women, who no longer have to collect firewood. Much-needed vaccines and food can be kept in fridges, children have power for their computers and light to do their homework.
Women who previously had no time for anything but housework have started businesses, for example using electric sewing machines to make clothes. Others use electric driers to preserve fruit for sale in nearby cities.
The award was “like dawn breaking after a long gloomy night, and the first rays of sun shining on white mountain peaks”
Not only does SRSP improve people’s quality of life. It also has a dramatic effect on the environment by reducing the carbon emissions which are driving climate change.
The electricity has replaced dim and dirty kerosene lamps and pine torches. Wood-burning stoves and cookers are replaced by more efficient electric versions, reducing the region’s chronic deforestation problem.
As well as the Pakistan government, several international aid agencies also give financial help. But SRSP, a not-for-profit organisation, is constantly searching for more funds.
In 2015 it entered an annual international competition to encourage sustainable energy, the Ashden Awards. SRSP was among the winners and collected a £20,000 prize, and help with management and fund-raising.
Now it hopes to expand to 33 new areas in the mountains to install more micro-hydro systems. Already, from the other communities it has helped, migration to the cities has stopped, and some people have even returned home. An unexpected bonus is that tourists – now able to stay in well-appointed small hotels – have started to return to an area deserted decades ago.
Masood Ul Mulk, the chief executive officer of SRSP, said that being selected for the award was “like dawn breaking after a long gloomy night, and the first rays of sun shining on white mountain peaks.”
Another 2015 award winner was another micro-hydro provider, TGV Hydro, this time in less remote mountains – in Wales, part of the UK. A special small type of turbine, faster-spinning and more efficient, was made locally for its schemes.
Wales already has a number of wind farms, and rooftop solar panels are popular, but small-scale hydro is potentially very important because it produces most power in the winter, when solar is least effective.
The idea behind the scheme was not to bring electricity to places without it, but to exploit local renewable sources of power that would otherwise be wasted, allowing hydropower to replace electricity from fossil fuels.
TGV Hydro had built 23 schemes when it won the prize and aimed to build another 15 a year. Its £10,000 prize from Ashden was intended as well to help it expand. But, unlike in Pakistan, where the prestige of winning the prize increased support for the scheme, the UK government dealt a substantial blow to this and other renewable industries in Britain in December 2015.
The government had guaranteed special prices, called feed-in tariffs or FITs, which are paid to wind, solar and small-scale hydro schemes to give them financial support.
All were cut in 2015, and those to hydro have been more than halved, from 20p (US$0.25) to 8p per kilowatt hour. This made many potential and planned new renewable schemes uneconomic, jeopardising these fast-growing industries.
The development director of TGV Hydro, Chris Blake, said the government’s decision to cut support for renewable energy had been a severe setback. TGV are still building schemes, but only those that were far enough advanced when the cuts were made to claim the old subsidy. Because of the cuts, he said: “We have seen the number of new applications for schemes crash to almost nothing.”
Because each small hydro scheme had to be designed individually for each site, the costs did not affect developers in the same way as they had for solar, where the main cost was for the panels.
However, despite this setback, TGV Hydro is determined to continue. The idea now is to generate electricity locally for schemes that can produce electricity more cheaply for the consumer than electricity from the grid. A trial in the Welsh mountains has already started. – Climate News Network
Paul Brown, a founding editor of Climate News Network, is a former environment correspondent of The Guardian newspaper, and still writes columns for the paper.