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In Kerala’s tribal villages, turbines are turning the tide

Tribal villages in Kerala are earning profits off their hydro microgrids, with help from the state government’s Energy Management Centre.

india Updated: Jun 13, 2018 10:13 IST
Gayatri Jayaraman
Zero head or Velocity or kinetic turbine at the Neyveli Lignite Corporation (NLC) in Tamil Nadu.
Zero head or Velocity or kinetic turbine at the Neyveli Lignite Corporation (NLC) in Tamil Nadu.(Photo credit: Energy Management Centre, Kerala)

The true cost of hydro power… is not money but time,” writes editor and author Prem Shankar Jha in his latest book, Dawn of the Solar Age. Environmentalists and human rights activists protest hydro projects across the country, and as Jha points out, wind, solar PV, and solar thermal power today provide viable alternatives. Even so, in the forests of Kerala, where underground channels for mainframe grid lines are too expensive and too dangerous to lay given the high water table and dense foliage, it is hydro models that are paving the way for electrification.

While renewable energy organisations have always experimented with finding optimal alternate solutions from biogas to solar and thermal, the Energy Management Centre (EMC), Kerala, has enabled the first formerly unelectrified gram panchayat to sell energy for profit.

Since 2003, EMC has been investing in micro hydro projects. And it has achieved success by harnessing a readily available resource: water.

Chandran Kani, a tribal chief at Thayannankudy village, which has 35 homes, didn’t have electricity till two years ago. The village is nestled between the Pamban and the Panthan hills. It falls under the Munnar wildlife division, about 100km from Coimbatore. The region\ is crisscrossed by many small streams.

In 2014, the Energy Management Centre went into Thayanamkudy, in collaboration with the Kerala forest department, and provided a 3KW pico hydro grid that runs on cross turbines using water diversion.

Thayannankudy village, which has 35 homes, didn’t have electricity till 2014, when a 3KW pico hydro grid was set up. (Photo credit: Energy Management Centre, Kerala)

Water diversion is the rerouting of an existing water flow through a small channel to turn a water wheel. Sometimes the flow is regulated by a sluice gate and uses gravity to generate electricity. For small turbines, 12 litres of water per second from a height of about 10 metres can generate 1KW of electricity.

“Most of the homes have just two rooms, so at present, the microgrid helps light up two electric bulbs in each home,” said Kani. “While electric lights were a blessing to this village that plunged into darkness and isolation by 5pm every day, the power supply is sometimes affected by the absence of enough water to run the project, especially in summer,”added 62-year-old Kani.

Any unexpected breakdown of the system takes time to repair, since help needs to come in either from Marayur, a town in Idukki district, which is 25km away, or from Coimbatore.

The only school (up to Class 4) and the anganwadi operate till 3.30pm, after which the teachers who come from neighbouring places scramble to leave the area, which is infested with wildlife including buffalos, elephants and bears. The region has got early rains this year, so Kani expects the microgrid project to work more efficiently in the next few months. EMC joint director Anil G says they also placed pipelines to gather the outflow and direct it to replenish animal watering holes, particularly useful when they dry out in the summers.

Bolstered by the success here, EMC replicated the model in tribal hamlets in the picturesque but dense sandalwood forests of rain-fed Marayur.

Several rivers originate in the district, and it also has one of the densest populations of scheduled tribes with 744 ST households scattered across 23 colonies. Since the forests are rich in wildlife and rare herbs, clearing the way for electric lines to link to grids is impossible, as is underground channelling.

EMC managed to equip Eachampetty village inside the forest with electricity for 60 dwellings, an anganwadi and street lights through a 4KW pico hydro grid. But the biggest success for EMC has been its collaborative intervention with United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) at Manakulam, a gram panchayat covering seven tribal villages, which was equipped with 110KW-capacity turgo impulse turbines feeding 300 houses way back in 2004.

The village developed a cold storage facility and a flour mill for community commercial use.

In two years, these were connected to the conventional grid.

By 2012, Manakulam panchayat had signed a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) with the Kerala State Electricity Board to sell units generated from the installed hydro capacity.

In the 2017 budget, the board allocated Rs 263 crore for 19 more medium and small hydro projects, upgrading Manakulam to a medium project. The village today earns Rs 25 lakhs per annum selling energy, with Rs 5 lakh going to salaries of those maintaining the hydro project.

6 experimental energy projects
  • 1. Eachampetty: Micro grid scheme with 4 KW Turgo impulse hydro turbine for the Eachampetty Tribal colony (forest land) near Marayur, Idukki Dt, Kerala
  • 2. Kaduvetty: MHP - 20 KW vortex micro hydro turbine project within Thiruvananthapuram Corporation in the river Killiyar. This is the very first vortex turbine installation in India. The turbine runs with the force created by an artificial whirlpool created from a very low water head (say 1- 1.5 m).
  • 3. Karimutty: Pico hydro installation (less than 5 KW) for the forest department.
  • 4. NLC India Ltd, Neyveli, TN: Zero head or velocity or kinetic turbine which runs on the flow velocity of water. This 4 x 5 KW installation is in the cooling water channel of Thermal Power Station II (1470 MW) of NLCI Ltd at Neyveli campus and has been running for the last six months.
  • 5. Various Pico turbine installations 110 picos have been installed in Kerala.
  • 6. Thayannankudy tribal colony inside Chinnar wildlife sanctuary – 3 KW pico cross flow turbine-based micro grid hydro power scheme with the support of the Anaimudy Forest Development Agency. The water is diverted from Chinnar river. The tail water is drawn through pipes up to 6 km away to fill a lake inside the forest watering hole for animals.

This story is repeated throughout Kerala, with several forest tribes, in Mangayam in the Palode forest range, at Mangapara in the Mangulam range, learning to harness and use resources that surround them for their renewable energy needs.

Several hamlets have started selling units to the electricity board.

“The tribal villages have begun to earn more out of selling electricity than out of the commercial activities that result from having access to electricity,” says Anil G.

EMC recently began experimenting with new technologies for small hydro projects to avoid the environmental burdens of the high-impact hydro projects. It put in a vortex turbine in the Kiliyar river, within the Thiruvananthapuram municipal limits, and six months ago, installed 5KW pocket turbines inside the lignite open cast mines of the Neyvelli Lignite Corporation (NLC) in Tamil Nadu. This now generates 80,000 units of electricity for the NLC to use.

By doing this, EMC was able to adapt the technology to the Kakad 50 MW power station, utilising tail rise water at a velocity of 3-4 metres per second. EMC’s array of small turbines is proving useful in combating the terrain and weather constraints, and is a lesson in using technologies to suit environments rather than imposing what is generally considered most suitable to rural settings.

According to economist Ajit Ranade, the outcome is the impact of the landmark Electricity Act, 2003.

“The Act, for the first time, allowed private producers to sell units of power. But in most cases, the electricity boards were so in the red that they were incapable of honouring such deals. It is to Kerala’s credit that it has also been capable of honouring the sale made by the small producers,” he said.

However, as with most technologies, there are environmental counter-arguments. According to a paper by scientist Shishir Rao at the Wildlife Conservation Society India Programme, small hydro projects have a negative impact on fish and fishing communities.

Studying the dammed and undammed tributaries of the Nethravati river, the study points to small hydro projects that come up in essentially eco sensitive and fragile zones.

“Flow alterations affected dewatered river stretches adversely… with width and depths greatly diminished in dammed dewatered segments, characterised by elevated water temperature and reduced dissolved oxygen,” he said.

Rao noted that diversions and damming have also impacted fish species compositions, besides impacting stream geometry, and chemistry in the dry season. The study now calls for more extensive studies of small hydro projects, which are not assessed to the same scale that large hydro projects are, and consequently also proliferate at a larger scale.

Comparing thermal, hydro, nuclear and solar power, Jha writes: “Not only is the bare investment per delivered unit of power much lower (in solar thermal power as compared to hydroelectric power), but doing so will avoid the immense cost that society has to pay whenever the earth is ripped apart to build a dam with its attendant tunnels, power stations and roads. Nor is that the only type of social cost that hydro power can exact. Another cost that is looming ever larger as the world begins to reach the limits of its finite resources is that of the war between riparian states over control over the flow of water resources...”

As with Manakulam, all microgrid projects — solar or hydro —that come in to fill lacuna, inevitably must expand to meet the needs of the consumer. And as community resources become individual ones, there is no end to human need.