High hopes for Indian small hydro

13 February 2001

India is taking the development of its small hydro resources very seriously. I M Sahai reports on one of the latest projects which aims to utilise hydro potential in the country’s Himalayan regions

INDIA has an estimated small hydro potential of 10-15,000MW. By the end of 2000, only 1327MW (357 projects of capacities up to 25MW each) had been commissioned. Of this, 223.27MW was accounted for by 271 projects of 3MW capacities or less. Another 131 projects (131MW) were under construction. Consequently, only about 10% of the total small hydro potential in India has been exploited, even though small hydro is one of the best sources of energy for the country’s hilly, remote and inaccessible areas.

In the last decade or so, the Indian government has initiated a series of steps to encourage the development of small hydro in a planned manner. The federal government set up a separate department, which was upgraded to the Ministry of Non-Conventional Energy Sources (MNES) in 1992, to oversee programmes of all renewables (including small hydro). Originally, small hydro of capacities up to 3MW came within the purview of MNES. In November 1999, the latter’s mandate was enlarged to cover projects up to 25MW. A separate financial institution, the Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency (IREDA), was established under the administrative control of MNES to fund renewable projects.

The small hydro division of MNES has been co-ordinating action with the state governments to speed up small hydro development, under the policies laid down by the federal government and supplemented by the states. Undeterred by the slow progress so far, MNES has set itself a target of adding 2000MW from small hydro by 2012. For this purpose, the various state governments have also been asked to draw up their respective programmes to develop projects, both in grid-connected and local-distribution modes. The emphasis is on setting up commercial projects with private participation where possible. Dr P Saxena, director of small hydro at MNES, says there are over 150 small hydro power projects in the range 5KW to 3MW, in remote and inaccessible areas, aggregating to about 125 MW. But this figure needs to be increased considerably.

The federal government, in conjunction with the states, is building up a database on small hydro which identifies prospective sites. This comprises field information gathered under a UNDP/GEF-funded project. By the end of 1999, about 3350 sites of capacities up to 3MW each (2852MW) and 662 sites up to 3-15MW (5520 MW) were identified.

MNES will now have to undertake a similar exercise for the projects in the region of 15-25MW. For micro schemes (up to 100KW), the government wants to encourage local initiative and has funded two types of demonstration schemes:

• Upgrading water-driven mills to produce electricity for domestic and local use.

• Installing portable, micro hydro sets (5-15KW) for local communities in remote and inaccessible areas. Fifty such sets have been installed in seven states and the local response has been heartening.

To develop mini (0.1-2MW) and small (2-25MW) projects, the government expects institutional efforts from the state utilities, non-governmental agencies and IPPs etc.

Interesting projects

An interesting small hydro project, currently under implementation in India, has been funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) along with the Global Environment Facility (GEF). Its aim is to optimise development of small hydro resources in the hilly regions of India. The sub-Himalayan areas of 13 Indian states fall under its remit.

The components of the project include:

• Setting up 20 small hydro projects at selected sites, each with a capacity of less than 2MW.

• Trying out different ownership, management and operational models.

• Selecting appropriate technology.

• Upgrading and developing 100 watermills to produce electricity for local consumption.

• Developing low-wattage devices for domestic use in cooking and heating.

• Emphasising the localised distribution of energy, instead of putting it in the grid.

• Involving the local population and NGOs in the project.

• Developing a national strategy and masterplan for small hydro in India, involving the government, project developers, equipment manufacturers and consultants, among others.

• Training stakeholders and improving the capabilities of three selected technical institutions in the small hydro sector.

The project is not merely a scheme to construct small hydro power plants. Its other components cover project planning, training, improving skills, and involving local citizens and NGOs etc. It also has strong environmental aspects. An environmental impact assessment of selected schemes will be undertaken, while any selected technology will also be environ- mentally friendly. While providing electricity to the locals for cooking and heating is expected to lead to a reduction in the use of wood, and thus in tree-felling.

The work done so far includes the preparation of master and zonal plans; training for selected office personal and those in the field; upgrading skills; selecting appropriate technologies; and developing 110 watermills. EIAs for some of the selected schemes have already been done. Construction at most of the 20 small hydro projects started in 2000 and is still in progress. The US$15M small hydro project started in January 1995 and originally had a 30-month duration. It was given a first extension until December 1999, and then December 2000, as delays took place involving the installation of the 20 small hydro projects. The latter, significantly, were meant to have a ‘demonstration’ value, for replication in other areas. Because of delays, the project is now likely to be extended by one more year.

One of the main achievements of the project is the indirect emphasis it has placed on small hydro power development in India. The creation of a core of trained personnel, and research and development by selected technical institutions, will give a strong backing for the development of small hydro.

Although the project has been imaginatively conceived and is far-reaching, some feel that it is not realistic and seeks to achieve too much, particularly for what originally was intended to be a short term project. On the whole, however, there is a feeling in India that UNDP-GEF should initiate and finance one or more similar follow-up projects, learning from the experience gained from the current project.

Sharing experiences

Some of India’s experiences in carrying out small hydro power projects in remote areas are appropriate for replication in other countries. South Asia, Nepal, Pakistan, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka all have similar hilly and remote geographical areas, with small hydro resources which are largely unserved by power systems. Small schemes with localised distribution would not only meet power needs but also significantly improve the quality of life of the population.

The same is true of many countries outside this region. Projects could be devised to suit local conditions, and be funded by UNDP-GEF and other multilateral agencies. Trained personnel and upgraded institutions can also help to formulate and implement projects elsewhere.

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