BHUREGAUN, NEPAL – It is early morning in the town of Bhuregaun, in Nepal’s western district of Bardiya. Chenta Tharu darts into town on his electric rickshaw, looking for his first customer. Tharu is hoping to have a busy day and it is not long before he is hailed. These days he drives his e-rickshaw for a solid six hours.

It was not always this easy.

Tharu recalls a time when electricity supply in Bhuregaun was so subject to fluctuations that his fuses kept blowing while he charged the batteries. He had to spend three months’ savings on repairs. Worst of all, he was forced to move away from home to earn a living and support his young family as his electric rickshaw was useless without charged batteries.

“It was terrible for so many reasons,” says Tharu, who is back with his family after nine years working abroad. “These days I go home and play with my sons after work, and my e-rickshaw batteries charge to full capacity while we are sleeping.”

“Having a steady electricity supply means the world to us. People can work longer, faster, more efficiently and can eventually plan for the long term. We want to do more.”

Chenta Tharu, E-rickshaw driver

Just under 85% of households in Nepal have access to electricity. Industry and businesses are limited by the shortfall in power supply, and rural areas have suffered the most. Most of the country’s electricity projects rely on run-of-the-river hydropower, with little or no storage capacity. This leads to shortages in the dry winter season when demand is at its highest. Until recently, much of the country faced rolling blackouts, called “load shedding”, for hours every day.

Bhuregaun was no exception, suffering outages even though existing transmission lines ran right through the town. As a result, most residents had to depend on small solar-powered systems or spent their savings on diesel to ensure continuous power supply.

“I spent half a million rupees to run fuel-powered generators so that my clients could use ceiling fans during the summer,” says hotelier Pushkar Raj Pokhrel. “And I even sold my mill because I was spending too much money on diesel.”

Expansion of transmission lines and adding substations along the way, as in Bhuregaun, have begun to transform lives in the region. With the advent of reliable clean power in Bhuregaun and other places in western Nepal, existing businesses like mills, hotels, and metal workshops have been rejuvenated, while services such as water supply systems have become more efficient. Internet and television services have begun to gain subscribers.

Lighting up Nepal

With up to a dozen hydropower projects totaling nearly 2,000 megawatts being constructed or planned in the medium term, a stronger power transmission and distribution network in Nepal could remove the present bottleneck in meeting domestic power demand and trading power with neighboring countries.

Helping this effort are two projects— the SASEC Power System Expansion Project and the Electricity Transmission Expansion and Supply Improvement Project, financed by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Government of Norway, and implemented by the Nepal Electricity Authority.

“The philosophy behind these is simple but crucial,” says Mukhtor Khamudkhanov, ADB’s Country Director for Nepal. “While strengthening nationwide and cross-country transmission capacity is a significant structural intervention, we must also ensure the ripple effect of development is felt at the grassroots.”

The projects are helping to expand on-grid and off-grid renewable energy supply, facilitating cross-border power exchange with neighbors and increasing access to renewable energy in rural areas. 

“Currently, hundreds of villages and towns in Nepal are either outside or at the fringes of the national power supply network, but soon this will change with the completion of the construction of substations and distribution network,” says Pushkar Manandhar, ADB senior energy officer for Nepal.

Giving Evening Time Back to People in Nepal

The program has become a lifeline in power redistribution and rural electrification in the western regions of Nepal, according to Manoj Silwal, chief of the Project Management Directorate at the Nepal Electricity Authority. “Not only does it play a huge role in enhancing the livelihood of the people at the grassroots, it also achieves other goals in environment protection and reduction of emissions,” he says.

Nepal is high on the list of countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Developing clean and renewable energy through hydropower offers low-carbon options to meet national and regional energy requirements while also providing the much-needed economic impetus.

“Making hydropower more accessible can replace the need to import energy from coal and other nonrenewable energy sources,” says Solveig Andressen, counsellor (Environment, Energy and Economic Development) at the Royal Norwegian Embassy. “We know from our own experience about the importance of building transmission lines to link hydropower plants to the market.”

As the sun sets in Bhuregaun, families turn on lights at home and the hubbub of the afternoon bazaar gives way to the steady humming of students doing homework and preparing for their exams.

“Having a steady electricity supply means the world to us,” says Tharu, adding that he does not miss the dark days of higher costs and minimal savings. “People can work longer, faster, more efficiently and can eventually plan for the long term. We want to do more.”