Print Edition - 2014-08-14 | Oped
The future of energy
- Petroleum imports can be significantly reduced if Nepal begins producing hydrogen to meet energy needs
Aug 13, 2014-Nepal’s mountainous topography and its perennial river systems, flowing from the high Himalayan ice capsto the southern plains, provide tremendous hydropower potential. But they also constitute enormous challenges for infrastructure development. Nepal’s hydropower potential has been estimated at 80,000MW, of which 43,000MW is considered economically viable—the sixth highest in the world. Though, only about 700 MW of this potential has been harnessed till now. The 80GW capacity was estimated some half century ago, when modern instruments and methods were not available. I believe that the real capacity is much higher, at least three folds more.
Export for import
Nepal’s hydropower potential is particularly important because it’s renewable, sustainable and emission-free, which makes it very attractive for the development of a hydrogen/electricity energy economy. Today, Nepal is not only going through perpetual loadshedding but also importing all its motor fuel and energy fuel. It spends about one-third to more than half of its national hard currency earnings from exports on importing petroleum goods. This figure was as high as Rs 32.4 billion in the fiscal year 2005/06, amounting to 54 percent of total country exports that year. This trend of using more hard currency to import petroleum products has increased, due to a rise in both the number of vehicles and the price of oil in the international market. If alternative sources are not considered, the demand for petroleum products will rise even further as the country seeks to develop and lift the living standards of its people in the coming years..
The huge amounts of money spent on petroleum imports, however, can be reduced and eventually eliminated if the country moves towards a hydrogen energy economy. About 40 percent surplus hydropower can at present produce hydrogen sufficient to replace more than 100 percent of petrol, diesel and kerosene consumption in the Kathmandu Valley. Depending on the amount of surplus hydropower used for the production of hydrogen, a total quantity of 27,000 to 140,000 tonnes of hydrogen can be produced by 2020. It is noteworthy that a hydrogen production system for run-of-the-river hydropower is more valuable than for others. This provides more flexibility to producers by producing power and storing it in the form of hydrogen for the dry season or when demands peak.
As hydrogen production will be carried out using hydropower, the cost of hydrogen will be heavily dependent on the price of off-peak electricity. The cost of hydrogen could be much lower than the present price of petrol, if reasonable off-peak hydroelectricity prices are worked out.
This provides a potential opportunity not only to capture huge economic benefits for the country but also to become less dependent on imported oil. In addition, hydrogen-fueled vehicles are inherently more efficient and consume 30 to 150 percent less fuel, depending on the technology employed, for the same distance travel. Purely electric vehicles may provide even higher efficiency. However, for these vehicles to become successful, their battery technology, particularly lithium ion batteries, have to be developed further to increase energy density and reduce costs. For example, the cost of hydrogen equivalent to a litre of petrol is much lower than the current price of petrol and equal to about Rs 80 if the price of electricity is taken as Rs 7 per unit for off-peak rates.
In fact, Nepal’s current hydropower potential can provide petroleum equivalent to about four million barrels per day. This is twice the capacity of Kuwait, or about $146 billion per year. The development of hydropower and hydrogen pathways can provide entrepreneurs, private sector businesspeople and government officials with a venue to learn and develop local industries in emerging areas of the hydrogen economy.
Timely development and investment in the emerging hydrogen industry will provide Nepal with footing equal to that of developed western countries, as they are also in the initial stages of research, development and deployment. This will provide Nepal with a unique opportunity to develop and deploy cost-effective hydrogen technology, particularly suitable for developing nations. Additionally, Nepal can become one of the first countries in the world to embrace a hydrogen energy economy, which will provide a lot of opportunities for local future industries to export manufactured goods and services to other countries who also seek a hydrogen energy economy. By investing now, Nepal can be a major player among Saarc, Asian and African countries. Therefore, proper planning and cooperation between the Nepal government and the private sector can generate enormous economic and development opportunities and benefits to Nepal within a decade or so. This could be a ‘new vision’ for the development of Nepal, one that relies entirely on the nation’s own strength. Nepal can then be at the forefront of the future era of ‘white gold’, ahead of most of other countries in the world.
Shrestha is a professor at Western Michigan University, the US
Published: 14-08-2014 09:50