Apr 30, 2011

Power of the community

Micro-hydel plants in Chitral offer electricity to masses at rates one-fourth of Wapda

By Shahzada Irfan Ahmed

Bibi Zar, 58, a resident of Wahat village in Chitral district, is spending a life full of comfort. She has access to warm water in freezing cold and uninterrupted power supply at minimal rates. Besides, she has enough leisure time at her disposal - a luxury she could not even think about until a couple of years ago.

Living almost 55 kilometers away from Chitral town, she is one of around 1,800 proud beneficiaries of the 100 KW micro-hydel power plant set up in the village. The facility managed by the village community never stops working, so there’s no load-shedding. This is in sharp contrast to the privileged Chitral town where electric supply sometimes remains suspended for 10 hours and more at a stretch.

Zar feels relieved as she doesn’t have to pick wood for heating or wash clothes in streams. The washing center in her village, run on locally produced power, serves the purpose. Above all, the houses in the village are illuminated at night, prompting night-time activity which was not their earlier. Besides, they have electrical appliances like micro-wave ovens, washing machines, electrical irons in their homes which have totally turned around their lifestyle.

"Our children can study during late hours and we can carve handicrafts throughout the night, sometimes doubling our production and income," she tells The News on Sunday (TNS) in a triumphant tone. The best part of the story is that per unit electricity costs between Rs1.5 to Rs2 to domestic consumers and Rs3 to the commercial and the rate does not increase with an increase in the number of units consumed. This is a blessing, considering the fact that Wapda sells a domestic unit for Rs8 in the area.

This micro-hydel plant is just one of the 63 set up on the banks of Chitral river and water streams as an initiative of Agha Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP). The formula at work is that 80 percent cost has to be borne by the donor and the remaining 20 percent by the benefiting community, mostly in the form of kind and labour.

"AKRSP has availed funding for micro-hydel power plants from different donors but right now their donor is Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund (PPAF)," says Fazl-e-Rabbi, Manager, Hydel and Renewable Energy, AKRSP while talking to TNS. He says the micro-hydel plants provide electricity to 24,000 households in Chitral and this number is double that of those connected to the national grid.

Fazl explains the process of setting up a micro-hydel plant which starts with a social organiser visiting a place and mobilising the local community. This phase is called first dialogue. During the second dialogue, civil and electrical engineers reach the venue for survey and assess its suitability for the purpose. In the third phase, a proposal is sent to PPAF which studies it and releases the required amount for the purpose.

Fazl says the households contribute wooden poles for installation of distribution lines, etc, and do physical labour as part of their obligation to cover 20 percent cost of the project. Sometimes, transmission lines have to be carried to villages situated at a distance of 10 kilometers or more from the power plant. The locals perform the arduous task of setting up wooden poles and transmission lines in the mountainous terrains of Hindu Kush.

Amin Baloch, a resident of Garam Chashma tehsil, Chitral, believes the plants are a lifeline for the local communities. He tells TNS they are managing the affairs of these power plants very effectively. "The village organisations, elected for this purpose, award electricity connections to households, at a cost decided unanimously, and sells electricity units to local and commercial users after keeping nominal profit." The excess amount, he says, is kept in a reserve pool and used for routine repairs and troubleshooting. In case of a major fault, the donors are approached for intervention but this situation seldom arises.

The potential of setting up micro-hydel power projects is huge as the raw material does not deplete at all and can be used again and again for power generation. In these plants, the energy of fast-moving water is used to rotate the blades of a turbine at high speed. The turbine turns an electrical generator, which produces AC electric power.

To build the required pressure, a part of the river water is diverted into a gently sloping channel running along the slope of the hill, at a much lesser gradient than the main stream below. After some distance, there is a 30 meter or more height difference between the channel and the river. The water from the channel is then sent down a pipe, known as a ‘penstock’, with a narrow exit jet.

This gives the water sufficient force to rotate the blades of a turbine, which turns the 220 volt electrical generator via a V-belt drive and the water is released back into the river. The turbine, generator and control systems are located in a small turbine house in the valley, from where distribution cables supply power to nearby communities.

Amin shares with TNS that people of Chitral have always welcomed innovation and that’s why these projects have materialised here so well. "Before the construction of Lowari tunnel", he says, "Chitral would remain cut off from the rest of the country for six to seven months in a year. They would adopt different methods to store edibles, etc, for themselves and take measures to sustain during this phase. A strong bond between community members and the awareness created by perennial interaction with NGOs have made these people action-oriented", he adds.

"Fortunately, all the components of power generation system are made in Pakistan, except for the generator and electrical meters which are imported from China", says Rahim Diyar, Managing Director, Hydrolink Engineering & Equipment Company (pvt) Ltd, which supplies hydel turbines in the market.

He says as per policy, communities can themselves manage micro-hydel projects up to 1 MW. Projects above that capacity have to come under the shadow of WAPDA and may be added to the national grid. Rahim tells TNS his company is in talks with the Punjab government which wants to produce hydel power at river and canal water heads in the province.

PPAF spokesperson, Ghulam Haider, says the fund is financing these projects as per its commitment to promote Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) in the country. "This mechanism calls for reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and offers incentive in the form of carbon finance (in dollars) to those succeeding in doing so. This money can be used for sustainable development in countries that cut on emissions." Haider says PPAF expects to earn $8.33 million in carbon revenue generated by micro-hydel projects funded by it till 2015.

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