Can renewables be an alternative for fuel shortages in Nepal?
Kathmandu, December 10
On a Sunday morning, dozens of police officers in combat gear stand guard at a petrol station in Kathmandu’s Lalitpur neighbourhood. Outside, nearly a hundred cars, motorbikes and buses form a serpentine line, their drivers hoping to buy a few litres of fuel.
Disruption in supplies since October — the result of a strike at the Indian border — has caused an acute shortage of petrol, diesel and liquefied petroleum gas in Nepal.
There is no guarantee that every customer in the Lalitpur queue will be served, and the police are on alert in case frustration turns to outbursts of anger.
“For over two months now, this has been a common sight across Kathmandu,” said Mohan Singh, a journalist with state-owned Nepal Television.
The crisis has environmental experts hopeful that the government will see the crisis as an opportunity to increase investment in renewable energy sources, which would not be so vulnerable to such strikes.
In the meantime, they worry short-term measures to subsidise fuel wood will undo the country’s progress in protecting its forests.
The problems began soon after Nepal adopted a new constitution on September 20. According to Singh, the constitution curbed some rights of people in Madhes, a province in southern Nepal, bordering India.
To enforce their demands for an amendment, Madhesi political parties called for a strike and blocked incoming supplies of fuel and other goods from India.
With hundreds of trucks prevented from entering Nepal, most petrol stations, cooking gas refill hubs and kerosene stores have now run out of stock.
“The sentiment (of the protesters) is still too strong. This fight is definitely going to continue,” said Singh, who is also president of the pro-protest Madhesi Journalists’ Association.
According to Nepal Oil Corporation, the South Asian nation currently consumes 1.2 million tonnes of fuel oil each year, all imported via India, and demand is increasing by 10 per cent annually.
Nepal has storage facilities for about three weeks’ supply of fuel.
By early November, the fuel shortage had snowballed into an economic crisis, affecting transportation and tourism, among other industries.
Ironically, the government says the fuel blockade is also hurting efforts to build renewable energy
capacity in Nepal.
At the 450 megawatt (MW) Tamakoshi hydropower project and the 30 MW Chameliya hydro plant, construction materials are no longer reaching the sites and engineers and construction workers have been ‘jobless’ as a result, the government said in a report.
Despite the disruption, the government has reiterated its commitment to finding cleaner energy sources, including expediting construction of the 1,200 MW Budhi Gandaki hydropower project and Nalsing Gad, a 410 MW
Currently, only one per cent of Nepal’s energy is produced from renewable sources, according to the Independent Power Producers’ Association Nepal.
Interviewed at the UN climate negotiations in Paris this week, Krishna Chandra Paudel, Nepal’s environment secretary and chief negotiator at the climate conference, said that Nepal needed an ‘energy mix’ to meet its needs.
“Diversified sources of such energy such as solar, hydro, biogas, wind and other renewables are being encouraged with full exploitation of hydropower potential,” Pokharel said. But he said it was very difficult to predict how soon they might be in place, and at what cost.
But even as the government promises to adopt more clean energy, it has also started to sell firewood at subsidised rates to tackle the shortage of cooking gas — a move that has been criticised by environmentalists.
For two weeks, each family has been able to buy 100 kilograms of firewood at Rs 15 a kilo ($0.15), while business owners can buy up to 500 kg of wood at a rate of Rs 17 a kilo. Government-owned timber depots had sold 110 tonnes of wood, sourced from forests in the Tarai region, by early December.
Environmentalists fear that this will undo Nepal’s achievements as a global leader in community-managed forestry.
Tirtha Bahadur Shrestha, a plant ecologist in Kathmandu, warned that unless there is strict monitoring, promoting firewood as cooking fuel could cause large-scale damage.
“This can increase deforestation and illegal logging,” he said.
A better approach, say some, is to subsidise electrical appliances such as induction stoves and at the same time encourage the production of solar power, biogas and micro hydro-electric projects.
Krishna Pun, a resident of Nangi, one of the first villages in the country to install a mini-hydro project, said the country’s experience in community-run forestry could now be put to building renewable energy capacity.