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InDepth: Nepal’s elusive quest for sustainable energy

InDepth: Nepal’s elusive quest for sustainable energy

Bimala Uprety, a 45-year-old homemaker, has to this date not used the induction cooker she bought years ago. She is happy with her trusty LPG stove.

“You never know when the power goes out,” she says. “At least with gas, you don’t have to worry about uncooked meals.” 

Uprety knows induction cooktops are more energy efficient than gas stoves, but she is reluctant to make the switch for a simple reason that electricity is irregular. She is not the only one who thinks so.

This reluctance, though not unfounded, stands as a barrier for embracing sustainable energy, says environmentalist Bhusan Tuladhar.

But their unwillingness is understandable in light of what happened during the 2015 border blockade when many families had switched over to electrical induction for cooking. Voltage was low and transformers often exploded. In total, 200 transformers across Nepal had to be replaced because of overload. 

The old transformers are still not equipped for high voltage distribution, leaving the public undecided about shifting to clean energy. 

The switch is even more challenging in rural Nepal, where the majority of households rely on traditional biomass. 

Although many rural households have been switching to LPG—as suggested by the research ‘LPG: The Dream Energy for Nepalese Women’ published by Center for Rural Technology, Nepal—biomass is still the dominant energy source.

Biogas technology can be used to cut down the use of biomass in rural areas. But energy experts say the government should be willing to bear greater burden of installing biogas systems. 

Most people are not interested in installing millions worth of biogas systems for which the government only covers 30-35 percent. Also, many rural households these days are moving away from farming and cattle rearing. In other words, not enough animal dung and agricultural waste—biogas ingredients—is being produced.

“As more and more people have been taking up non-farming jobs, installation of biogas plants has become even less viable,” says Prakash Lamichhanhe, executive director of Biogas Sector Partnership-Nepal. 

The reluctance to adopt sustainable energy is not limited to kitchens though. It is widespread in transport as well. Though the number of electric vehicles (EVs) on our roads has been increasing, fossil fuel-run vehicles still rule the roads.

There is little knowledge about EVs among people. Many people do not even know how the batteries work, or about their maintenance, cost and reliability. 

Take Gokul Nepal, a 53-year-old teacher. He recently bought a scooter after weighing all the pros and cons of ‘petrol v electric’ two-wheelers. He chose the former because there are not many charging stations while traveling outside Kathmandu valley. 

“I also had doubts about the battery life, pick-up and the overall reliability of the electric scooter,” he says.

It is also that electric transport is not being promoted enough. Customers don’t have a choice when most dealers are selling fossil fuel-based vehicles.  

There are only a few start-ups and a handful of well-established dealers selling EVs. But most customers buy their vehicles from popular dealers. And roads in Nepal are simply not fit for EVs. Kathmandu, the capital city, doesn’t even have proper bicycle lanes, let alone a smooth, gradient-free roads for electric cars.   

Harmita Shrestha, who drives electric buses for Sajha Yatayat, says Kathmandu’s roads are full of speed-breakers and potholes for vehicles like EVs with low ground clearance to ply smoothly. 

“Everywhere you go in Kathmandu, the road condition is the same,” she says.

While Sajha has at least tried to promote electric transport, the same cannot be said of other public transport operators.

Public transport is a lucrative business with huge investment and it has provided jobs for many. Tuladhar says existing public transport operators will naturally oppose EVs.

“They will not put their investment on the line for the sake of the environment,” he adds. “The state should offer them an alternative to protect their investment.”

Fossil fuels cannot be completely replaced. Many people’s livelihoods depend on them and they will go to any length to maintain the status quo. 

Many institutions like petroleum associations, tankers associations, and private businesses are benefiting from the increasing purchase of petroleum products. 

Shifting towards clean energy will harm them. “They are not concerned about promoting clean energy, or the degrading environment,” says Shree Krishna Upadhyay, founding chairperson of Support Activities of Poor Producers of Nepal (SAPPROS) who has been promoting the use of clean energy for the past 47 years. 

He adds that never has he seen these institutions support clean energy. “I always hear of their objections to it,” he says. 

Mukesh Kafle, former CEO of Nepal Electricity Authority, for one believes it will be hard to pin the blame without proper research. 

But several instances suggest businesses and institutions that benefit from greater use of fossil fuel won’t shy away from getting their hands dirty if need be. 

Take the case of the ropeway between Gorkha and Chitwan. Kiran K. Rauniyar, a mechanical engineer, says the ropeway was destroyed in 2015 by a syndicate of truck operators whose business was taking a hit.  

The ropeway, built in 2008, had become an efficient way of transporting goods for the villagers of the two districts, and the local goods carriers were not happy. 

Ganesh Sinkemana, technical director of Ropeway Nepal who worked for Gorkha-Chitwan ropeway, says since the local truck operators were not getting any business, they decided to cut the ropeway by raising unfounded safety hazards after the 2015 earthquake.   

“I checked the ropeway myself. There was no safety issue after the earthquake,” he says.

This is one example of how beneficiaries of fossil fuels are obstructing the use of clean energy resources. “It’s only money they care about, not the environment or the society,” adds Upadhyay. 

Energy experts say Nepal’s dependence on fossil fuels is too deeply connected to its socio-economic fabric. 

Unless people are willing to make changes in their lifestyle and ways of thinking, Upadhyay says, the road to sustaining energy will continue to be bumpy. “The government too is not doing enough to help people make a conscious choice,” he concludes.