Accelerating the Green Drive forwardThe only indication that the country is reeling under a fuel crisis is the “Modi-fied” menu where some items are temporarily unavailable because they need too much gas to prepare and with the India blockade, gas has been elusive or extremely expensive.
A Kathmandu winter dusk hastened into the night sky and the evening rush hour in the heart of the capital below it. One side of Durbarmarg lit up with headlights, casting tall shadows. The other side draped in a warm red glow of taillights. With an open black-market for petrol, the reliance and enthusiasm commuters had for bicycle just a month ago has noticeably decreased. Still, the six-cycle parking outside Hotel Annapurna is full. But so is the car and motorcycles parking along the palatial boulevard’s entire stretch. Just beyond its southern end, commuters experience extended wait for public buses. When they arrive, many end up sitting on the roofs, the only spaces available. A café is brimming with guests and the regular hissing of the steamer frothing milk for another latte or cappuccino, punctuates their conversations. There is little indication that the country is facing multiple crises. The only indication that the country is reeling under a fuel crisis is the “Modi-fied” menu where some items are temporarily unavailable because they need too much gas to prepare and with the India blockade, gas has been elusive or extremely expensive. In many homes, the menu has not changed much, but the way it is cooked has: a mix of firewood and a rapidly growing reliance on electric stoves has steadily replaced LPG. Interest in electric vehicles has spiked drastically too. In the mean time, weekly scheduled load shedding has been upped to 58 hours. It is expected to increase as we move deeper into winter, a season that has regularly seen over 12 hours of daily power-cuts in recent years.
“The policies we need to set should not be just about the crisis and the technology that exists now,” MP Gagan Thapa, Chairman of the Agriculture, Energy, and Water Resources Committee, said last week during a conversation about Nepal’s energy security. “As policy makers, we must anticipate scientific and technological developments and figure out how that helps a Nepali’s daily life in both the near and long term. People still argue electric vehicles are not reliable enough, but their arguments are outdated. If people are buying vehicles, we need to at least make sure the cleanest option is the most feasible one for them,” he added, looking out into the busy street.
Last month, he hosted a major meeting through his Committee on the Budhi Gandaki project, making a presentation that outlined its cost and benefits. Now, there is renewed interest in the project from stakeholders. As per experts, the 1,200MW multi-purpose hydro project could easily help ensure enough power for our kitchens and cars while providing additional irrigation benefits, and be domestically funded. But a project of this scale will take years to come online. Which is why for several years he has also worked to make solar, which offers a quicker turn around, more accessible to Nepali households and businesses.
Seeds for Green Growth
This December, MP Thapa is working to host a comprehensive policy meeting through his Committee to discuss Nepal’s energy security and its relationship with public health, economy, agriculture, climate change and Nepal’s urbanised future. The meeting is expected to propose actionable ways forward for sustainable development solutions. The Chairman is also expected to outline the fact that inaction affects the most marginalised and vulnerable members of the Nepali population and could exacerbate Nepal’s socio-political crisis even further.
Exactly 10 years ago, however, it was a very different December for MP Thapa. In 2005, he was a young student leader jailed and brought to court on charges of treason for speaking against the Monarchy. His arrest had been imminent ever since he became a national voice to lead the ‘movement against regression’ that began in winter 2003. Then, Thapa regularly spent his nights in different locations to avoid arrest for his role in leading protests demanding a democratic government.
It was on one of those nights, tear gas from the police’s afternoon firings still afloat in the city’s streets, he wondered aloud: “If I ever become an elected representative of the people, what are some of the things that I should do?” He was not interested in a political answer; he wanted to understand how a policy maker could better the lives of people through development, and its relationship with social justices and inter-generational equity.
Next Generation Leaders
In 2013, MP Thapa was elected representative of Kathmandu-4 constituency where he won by a landslide. He soon initiated the Livable Kathmandu campaign, a multi-party coalition to design and implement sustainable urban development policies for Kathmandu so that it serves as an example for the rest of Nepal. If as a policy maker many consider MP Thapa as the needed next generation leader in politics, other sectors are seeing emerging leaders too.
Last year, Kshitiz Khanal, Rojesh Dahal and Gokarna Poudel, grad students from Kathmandu University, spent time at the Institute of Automotive Technology (Technical University of Munich) for a project called Global Drive. Associate Professors Dr Bivek Baral and Dr Hari Neopane accompanied them. There, students from Nepal and Munich designed and built an actual prototype of a multi-purpose EV! Outside of the classroom, entrepreneurs are already looking to build EVs domestically, or setup assembly centres for international EV companies. Those who pioneered the Safa Tempo in early 90s are also eager to restart their work for a new era. Companies like these could create the space for today’s students to become tomorrow’s innovators. Central to all this is of course policy vision and the political commitment to enable it. The Agriculture, Energy and Water Resources Committee has shown both.
For several weeks this Government has been sitting on a proposal to reduce electric vehicles taxes to 10 percent and one percent for private use and Government use respectively. The proposal was formulated in the last government but because the government itself was in transition, it was sent to the new Cabinet. And certainly, the basic premise of the proposal is what many groups and individuals have been working to have the Government approve for many years. Still, certain regulatory mechanisms can help the policy truly benefit Nepal.
Ensuring its investment in the best technology available is key, especially around the battery used. It is also important to see the tax reduction as a first step. The larger policy needed is not an option for an affordable EV, but rather a designed transition to clean mobility, starting with set annual benchmarks to replace all fossil fuel powered government vehicles. Reliable options are increasingly available for most needs.
At the same time, Kathmandu Valley Development Authority (KVDA) and Livable Kathmandu have been developing a similar benchmark-based roadmap for transitioning private and mass transit to clean mobility, as well implementing KVDA’s 15-year Kathmandu development master plan.
A change in current policy to allow engine conversion would also enable combustible engine based vehicle owners to go electric without having to buy a new car. This would especially be crucial for anybody that already own fleets of buses and vans, such as schools, offices, and the government.
But how will an energy deficient Nepal, now largely powered by diesel generators and electricity procured from India, power this revolution?
February 2014. A Joint Secretary from the Water and Energy Commission Secretariat (WECS) had just finished touring the City Museum Kathmandu and settled down around a table in the gallery. They had been invited for a meeting to be briefed on urban solar power solutions and needs. The meeting had been called by MP Thapa and coordinated by Santosh Mani Nepal, a conservation policy expert. It was hosted by the Museum as part of its regular policy series on sustainable development From the Museum one could see the sunset quite clearly. When the evening’s load shedding started, the meeting continued in candlelight. The participants laughed and the invitees acknowledged the urgency for urban solar incentives. More meetings followed: led by the government, engaging various stakeholders. A year later, this January, the Cabinet passed a major urban solar incentive program, a direct outcome of the series of meetings on the topic that began last year and based around the Net-Metering policy MP Thapa had helped make part of energy policy in the 2014 budget announcement.
The government’s recent announcement to mandate all new buildings to incorporate solar power is based on those very policies too. New buildings aside, existing government campuses, commercial buildings and schools also tend to have large spaces where solar PVs can be installed, making solar powered vehicle even more practical and net-metering more meaningful.
Indeed, combining EV and solar subsidy as a package is an obvious path to take in terms of sustainability and energy independence. Now, with kitchens rapidly having gone electric this autumn, the need to setup solar power in homes and businesses is even more urgent. However, despite a series of incentives put into place to enable this, there appears to be a communications challenge, in which consumers have not been sufficiently informed about these options.
In a crux, residences can finance their solar power system, without a collateral, through a loan of 2.5 percent interest. For businesses, the interest is about 4.5 percent.
For fuller details, it is best to get in touch with Global IME Bank, Nepal Investment Bank, or Civil Bank, which are some of the designated banks to process these loans.
NEA has often stated that anything less than 100kw will not be feasible for metering due to high transmission losses. So while a home’s 2.5kw, for now, may not be able to send power back to the grid without a micro-grid, larger offices and businesses should be able to capitalise on this policy if they wanted to.
According to energy projects in the pipeline, Nepal is expected to have surplus energy within this decade. “Currently, Nepal Electricity Authority is the one telling us what our projected needs will be. But that’s a flawed process because they don’t consider things like mobility, kitchens,” MP Thapa explained. “For a policy maker, if we know how many cars are expected to be bought in the next 10 years, and how much energy is expected to be produced at the same time, I would calculate how many of those new cars can be EVs and set our benchmarks accordingly.”
In other words, for immediate and long term residential needs, solar can go a long way in delivering. In the medium and long term, the nation will be producing so much clean energy that we need to start planning for its use in Nepal’s development and consumption.
Making It Matter
In an early Tarai morning in Chitwan district last week, gradient layers of mist still covered the land and the sun was a pale glow behind a thick fluid grey curtain in the sky. For over a 100 days, parts of Nepal’s southern plains have seen violent political unrest. Here, bull-carts, tractors, bicycles shared pathways along farms, moving on to their morning chores and day’s destinations. MP Thapa stopped his bicycle.
“So much of our urban focus is on existing cities, but this is where urbanisation is at a rapid pace. It is where we need to pay attention to ensure they don’t repeat Kathmandu’s mistakes,” he said, looking out at farmlands plotted for real estate development on one side, and farmers working on their farms on the other. A large poultry farm stood out in the horizon. Last year, he had inaugurated an electric rickshaw event in Dang district, himself test-driving one as part of the function. Today, such e-rickshaws have become the norm for commutes in bigger towns across the southern plains.
“Political debates will always continue, but development of Nepal, or in other words, the process of making the life of Nepalis better, shouldn’t be paused for it. We are near the end of 2015. Ideas that seemed far-fetched just a couple of years ago are already getting dated. We need to take a holistic view on urbanisation, energy security, agriculture and natural resources management. That New Nepal we promised the people has to be a sustainable one. As policy makers, we need to make this matter.”
Over time, perhaps even the next election cycle, people will care more for these once obscure, almost ridiculed outlier issues: solar powered homes, biogas kitchens, electric mass transit. For now, policymakers in the Parliament need do their jobs right. MP Thapa is working within his Committee and finding alliances in other Committees to do just that again. After that, it will be important for the public and their elected representatives to monitor the Cabinet’s deliberations and decisions on them, and respond accordingly.