KATHMANDU, Feb 8 : Every day when the light goes out, Bhim Raule, who has been working as a diesel generator operator at Civil Mall in Kathmandu for the last two years, scurries down to the basement.
The moment Raule ignites a 630-KVA diesel generator, the electricity flows throughout the mall, enabling everyone to use whatever electronic equipments they need. "I do it as soon as the power goes out," says Raule. "People in the mall hardly notice when the light goes and comes."
In this file photo, a thick plume of smoke flows out of a chimney at a factory in Balkumari of Lalitpur district that depends on diesel fuel to run its operations.
As the generator burns diesel for hours--sometimes continuously for half a day--hundreds of people shop, eat, play and watch movies in the mall, most of them oblivious to the cost of fossil fuel used for generating electricity.
"We burn about 1,000 liters of diesel in just two days," says Raule. "And this is just for supplying electricity to the mall, not for running movie theaters."
Inside the basement are two more generators that are smaller than the one Raule is responsible to handle. These two generator sets, one 160 KVA and another 100 KVA, are alternatively used to run the multiplex on the top floor of the mall.
In the first few minutes, diesel generators emit plumes of smoke, visibly black and thick. Gradually, plumes of smoke begin to thin out, however, even the thinned out smoke emitted by diesel generators is hazardous to the environment and human health, say experts.
Nevertheless, as Nepal reels under heavy power outages--normally up to 12 hours a day in winter--people are increasingly relying on diesel generators despite high cost and environment and health hazard involved.
Apart from hundreds of thousands of vehicles, diesel is widely used to generate electricity at countless factories, hotels, restaurants, multiplexes, malls, banks, communication providers, apartments and educational institutions.
Height of stupidity
In the fiscal year 2007-2008, the Nepal Oil Corporation (NOC) imported more than 300,000 kiloliters of high speed diesel (HSD), which is used to run high-speed engines like motors and generators.
Since then, the annual import of HSD has been steadily increasing. By 2012-13, the size of import doubled compared to in 2007-2008. And given the trend of the last five years and the current state of power generation in Nepal, the import of diesel is unlikely to decline in the foreseeable future.
So, what led to the sharp rise in the annual import of HSD in the year 2007-2008? The answer is crystal clear: load-shedding.
As the Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) failed to meet the increasing demand of electricity, it started supplying power only for certain hours, forcing people to rely on diesel. As load-shedding hours increased, reliance on diesel also spiked. Today, unavailability of diesel would spell doom for all the factories, malls, hotels and even hospitals.
"We always store thousands of liters of diesel," says Raule. "If we run out of diesel, the business of the mall would be badly affected."
In common parlance, the rise in the import and use of fuel indicates economic boom and development. But, it is not the case in Nepal.
"Had our diesel import increased as a result of the expansion of industrial sector, it could have been a reason to rejoice," says Shiva Prasad Pudasaini, former spokesperson of the NOC. "But the rise in our diesel import is just to generate electricity. This is nothing but stupidity."
Pudasaini explains why the increase in the import of diesel for electricity generation is a stupid idea."Currently, per unit cost of electricity generated by a hydro power is about Rs 8," says Pudasaini. "But, per unit cost of power generated by diesel generators is about Rs 35. Now, you can calculate how much money we are losing by using diesel for power generation."
Pudasaini says the NOC has been incurring a loss of about Rs 10 billion every year, which is off set by subsidy and loans that the government occasionally provides it. "This is the height of stupidity," he says. "We incur loss in diesel import and make more loss by using it to generate power."
"With Rs 10 billion, which we annually spend on petroleum products, we could develop a medium-scale hydropower project," he says. "But the government has never thought this way."
A definite carcinogen
For years, it was speculated that exhaust fumes from diesel engine could cause cancer. Last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially recognized the hazard.
A group of scientists at the WHO, after years of researches, studies and deliberations, has now reclassified diesel exhaust as a substance that has definite links to cancer, reported international news agencies in 2012.
"It´s alarming," says Prashant Khanal, program coordinator at Clean Energy Nepal, an NGO. "As more people rely on diesel generators for electricity, our health is at risk, to say the least."
In 2013, Clean Energy Nepal had conducted a study, which showed alarmingly high amount of diesel being used for power generation in the Kathmandu valley. "We had hypothesized that about 40 per cent of diesel sold in the valley was used for power generation," says Khanal. "But, our finding was more startling. As much as 65 per cent of diesel sold in the valley is consumed by generators."
According to the same study, diesel generators in the valley emit 383 tons of PM-10 (particulate matters up to 10 micrometers in size) every year. Particulate matters can easily enter people´s mouths and noses, some even seeping into the bloodstream, thereby, increasing the risk of cancer. "Some people place their diesel generators on sideways, which makes passersby vulnerable to the risk of cancer," says Khanal.
Cause of climate change
Diesel engines not only emit PM10 but also carbon dioxide and black carbon, among other poisonous gases.
While carbon emission is directly linked to climate change, black carbon also causes risks to human environment by accelerating glacier melt. According to the study by Clean Energy Nepal, diesel generators being used in the Kathmandu valley alone emit over 200,000 tons of carbon dioxide and over 200 tons of black carbon every year. In addition, hundreds of thousands of vehicles and factories add to emissions of carbon dioxide and black carbon within as well as outside the Kathmandu valley.
"Black carbon is notorious for absorbing solar heat," says Dr Bal Krishna Sapkota, coordinator of Climate Change and Development Program at the Institute of Engineering in Pulchowk, Kathmandu. "As wind blows northward, black carbon drifts toward the Himalayas and settles on the snow-capped mountains. And snow-capped mountains covered with black carbon absorb unusually more solar heat, accelerating the rate of glacier melting."
As glaciers retreat fast, people living downstream fear Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs), which have occurred several times in the past years. "We have done a study that shows black carbon emitted in cities like Kathmandu really reach the Himalayas and accelerate melting of glaciers," says Dr Sapkota. "We must reduce our dependency on diesel."
So what should be the way forward?
"Alternative energy," says Dr Sapkota. "There is no alternative to alternative energy. And alternative energy that we turn to must be clean and renewable." In Nepal, the government has formed Alternative Energy Promotion Center (AEPC) to seek sustainable solutions to chronic energy crisis. But Dr Sapkota says, "The works that AEPC is doing are not sufficient. We must generate huge amounts of alternative energy that can be linked to the national grid of the NEA."