In early 2008, hundreds of villagers in the remote interiors of Shahada district in the north-eastern province of Badakhshan in Afghanistan got an electric connection. A mini-hydro plant drawing water from the local mountain springs did the trick. The 125-kW (kilowatt) plant that today has 5,000 users provided not only light, a cooking medium and hot water supply, but access to television and other electric appliances hitherto unknown in the area.
The approach in Afghanistan was developed and implemented by a German Federal Development Agency GIZ. The programme drew on experience gained by GIZ in Nepal, Indonesia, Mongolia, Pakistan and others.
According to GIZ, the strategy (which won the Ashden Award for clean energy this year) was to set up an energy committee at a potential hydro site with members of local Shura (council of elders). Communities are actively involved in the hydro development, through both in-kind contributions and paid work. Local men are identified and trained as operating crew for the scheme, one of whom becomes the leaseholder for an initial period of three years. Capital costs are paid by grants. Electricity fees cover the operating costs, including wages, maintenance and a leasehold fee retained centrally for major repairs.
By March 2012, six off-grid mini-hydro schemes were in operation with a total capacity of 1.3 mW (megawatt), producing about 2.5 gWh (gigawatt-hour) of electricity every year. Over 7,565 households (63,000 people), including 110 public organisations (government buildings, schools and hospitals) and 645 small businesses, were electrified.
According to GIZ, two more mini-hydro schemes are under construction and five other sites are under assessment. The programme has made the communities self-sufficient, besides supporting small enterprises.
Globally, hydro power is the largest source of renewable energy, providing about 16 per cent of the world’s electricity. But most of this is from large-scale systems. In 1995, the micro-hydro capacity in the world was estimated at 28 gW, supplying about 115 tWh (terawatt-hour) of electricity. About 60 per cent of this capacity was in the developed countries.
While a mini unit can come up in two years, the large ones need up to 20 years, besides huge land displacement, flooding and diversion of rivers. The Teesta river in Sikkim has nearly vanished into tunnels built for big hydro plants, such as the 1,200-mW Teesta-3. Protests are still on against projects coming up in Assam over the Subansiri and in Uttarakhand over the Ganges.
Over 600 big hydro projects have been sanctioned on the Ganges. And, such has been the mad rush that places like Vishnuprayag that once were sacred as the meeting point of rivers are now nearly irrelevant, as projects have swallowed entire rivers, says Himanshu Thakkar, a water activist and coordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.
While the world, including India and Europe since the 19th century, has understood and exploited micro- and small-hydro as projects generating less than a megawatt, small hydro in India is defined as projects below 25 mW. It also means these are not monitored and don’t need environment clearances.
There is no incentive for off-grid sub-mW projects either, points out Thakkar. He says community-owned off-grid sub-mW hydros are rare in India, except for a few water mills in Himachal Pradesh and projects in Andhra Pradesh.
Indian state governments and policy makers obviously are smitten by everything big. The rich and bountiful rivers are small change when it comes to raising these river-eating mammoths.