25: Light work
Private power generation
The problem: disconnected heartlands
In many developing countries, the state is responsible for the generation and distribution of electricity, but it may be unwilling to spend valuable resources connecting up small, outlying communities. This in turn makes it harder for such communities to break out of their poverty, since the development of local agriculture and industry is retarded by the lack of power. Industry becomes laborious and inefficient too, because villagers often have to carry their produce to the nearest wired-up centre for processing.
The idea: local electricity businesses
Why not allow and encourage local communities to generate their own electricity, and if possible, buy any surplus for use on the national electricity grid?
The experience: home-made power
In Sri Lanka, 70 percent of the country's population live in rural communities. But only those communities which can consume more than 100 kilowatts can hope to be connected to the national electricity grid. As a result, about half of the rural households in Sri Lanka have no connection, and rely on firewood and kerosene for their heating, lighting, and other energy needs. Because of the low population density and the high transmission costs because of long distances and difficult terrain, grid power supply has become almost impossible for many remote areas.
However, there is a high annual rainfall in the hilly regions of Sri Lanka, which make it ideal for small-scale hydroelectric power generation. In principle, this could bring power to communities that were too remote, too poor, or too small to justify being connected to the grid.
With British help, Sri Lanka already had a programme to revive the redundant small-scale hydroelectric power generators on tea estates. But the technology had not traditionally been used outside the estates.
However, local initiatives soon demonstrated that the same technology could work in other places too. In the remote community of Ihala Maliduwa, at least one villager was already using a home-made water wheel to generate domestic electricity, and development bodies provided help to expand this into Sri Lanka's first off-grid electricity generation and distribution network.
The village community itself decided on management and pricing, and contributed labour to the project. The rural development office provided half the cost of the necessary equipment.
Sri Lanka's Micro Hydro Programme began to gather momentum in 1980 through collaboration between the Ceylon Electricity Board Energy Unit and Sarvodaya. But the country has benefited from international collaboration on alternative power development too. The Intermediate Technology Development Group - an international development organization - became involved in the international Micro Hydro Power Group, comprising experts in small-scale hydroelectric power, and helped to lead the some of the development of hydro-electric and other renewable energy sources (such as wind power and biogas) in remote areas. Next, the formation of an independent Energy Forum began to explore alternative energy provision to remote areas of Sri Lanka, inspiring similar forums in Japan, Nepal, and Zimbabwe, among others.
Thailand, which also has the problems of difficult terrain and long distances between small communities, has more than 70 micro-hydro electricity schemes.
For example, the Mae-To-Luang and the Pand-Bong micro-hydro projects together serve 252 low-income households. They are just two of seven schemes in the area, where small-scale hydro project development started over 15 years ago at the initiative of the King of Thailand.
But deforestation has made the water supply erratic, and the calls for grid connection have grown louder, putting micro-hydro projects under threat. However, researchers believe that amendments to Thailand's electricity pricing regime could give greater support to micro-hydro projects, and simultaneously encourage other benefits, such as forest conservation.
Assessment: power to the people
The Micro Hydro Programme mapped the potential for small-scale hydroelectric generation in seven districts of Sri Lanka, and began developinging a financial model in which local governments, non-governmental organizations, and donor agencies could work together in promoting wider uptake of the idea for rural electrification.
Today, nearly a hundred villages in Sri Lanka are generating their own power on the community-management principles pioneered at Ihala Maliduwa. The bulk of the power so generated is used in homes, but off-peak electricity now powers grain mills, refrigeration, laundries, battery chargers, and other local enterprises.
The provision and promotion of small-scale hydroelectric schemes has even become a business in itself, with local fabricators being trained to build and sell their equipment to other communities. Sometimes, grants are available to help towards the cost of the building and installation work, but in most cases the local residents themselves chip in labour and capital. The village of Kandal Oya broke new ground when the community formed its own company so that it could get a commercial-bank loan through Sri Lanka's renewable energy support scheme.
For further information:
- See Harper, Malcolm (2000) Public Services Through Private Enterprise: Vistaar Publications (New Delhi) Chapter 3.
- The Intermediate Technology Development Group can be found at www.itdg.org.
- Jesdapipat, Sitanon, and Kiratikarnkul, Siriporn (1999) Surrogate Pricing for Water" The Case of Micro-Hydro Electricity Cooperatives in Northern Thailand: EEPSEA Research Report www.eepsea.org.
Copyright 2002: Adam Smith Institute
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