Government of Nepal declared an energy emergency last February – the third one in the last eight years – and targeted to end the energy crisis in two years. With the recent change of government, the fate of the plan is in limbo. Hydropower, the major source of Nepal’s electricity generation, can’t end Nepal’s energy crisis in such a short time by virtue of its capital intensive and time consuming nature. Alternative technologies like solar, micro-hydro, biogas, and wind have been explored, and for several reasons they have not been enough. More appropriate energy generation technologies have to be explored to widen energy access to different parts of Nepal.
A relatively new technology invented in Austria in 2007 and improvised by researchers of Nepal, shows promise of delivering small amount of electric power, from few kilowatts up to 25 kilowatts, generated using the vortex of flowing water. The technology is named Gravitational Water Vortex Power Plant (GWVPP). When water passes through a strategically designed basin, vortex of water is formed causing the turbine located at the center of the basin to rotate. The energy of the turbine can either be used mechanically or be used to generate electricity. Compared to most hydropower plants of Nepal that need hundreds of meters of head (difference of height between the points from where water is first released from river or dam to the location of turbine), and micro-hydro power plants that need tens of meters of head, GWVPP can operate in less than a meter of head.
With relatively lower installation costs and low head requirement, these plants can be installed in many places in Nepal, including Terai, thus providing a novel alternative for electricity generation for places without access to national electricity grid. Small power plants like these can be beneficial for small and medium enterprises in using local and renewable energy resources, thus greatly reducing operating costs and carbon footprint.
Nepali researchers started research works in GWVPPs in Nepal since 2012. After continuous efforts of several researchers of Nepal, two major innovations were accomplished. Instead of original design with cylindrical basins, conical basins were found to be more efficient in forming water vortices. Similarly, if the turbine is positioned at 60 to 70 % of height from bottom, efficiency would be optimum. These innovations were a result of rigorous mathematical modeling, laboratory tests, and design efforts. The researchers overcame problems typically faced by researchers in developing countries including lack of adequate funding, lack of technical expertise, difficulty in manufacturing, and little support from government and non-governmental bodies. The results obtained have been peer reviewed and accepted by the scientific community in international conferences and academic journals, including Elsevier’s Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews.
Only few research efforts make it from academia to industry and society, which is even less so in Nepal. Besides academic and professional recognition, scientists and researchers covet the potential impact and implementation of their ideas and findings for society the most. The improved design of Nepali researchers, currently patent pending, is finding few takers in Nepal. Currently, a GWVPP of 1.6 kW capacity is being installed in Bagmati River at Gokarna, Kathmandu. The plant will supply electricity to a nearby orphanage and Martyr’s Park.
Technical and commercial feasibility of installation of these plants have been studied for several locations. The goal of the innovators is to install a minimum of 50 such plants ranging from 5 kW to 20 kW capacity in the next 5 years. The initiative led by Institute of Engineering, Pulchowk Campus has garnered support from Kathmandu University and University of Bristol. More research into financial, economic, social and policy dimensions and implications of the technology are in pipeline.
Low head small scale hydro-electricity generation is feasible in many places of Nepal, including Terai and has the potential to help abate the energy poverty Nepal is facing. Innovations made in Nepal’s universities should find its way to society and international scientific community. Research and innovation initiatives like this should be supported by government, people, media, and all to encourage Nepali innovators to develop appropriate solutions to Nepal’s pressing problems.
Rabin Dhakal and Kshitiz Khanal
Rabin Dhakal is a lecturer at Kantipur Engineering College and Kshitiz Khanal is a researcher at Kathmandu University.