An international NGO working in Sri Lanka has demonstrated that renewable energy can be a practical option for getting electricity to remote rural communities. It has developed sustainable micro-hydro schemes that can be built and maintained by the people they serve.

Namiz Musaffer, Practical Action, Sri Lanka

More than a third of Sri Lanka’s 19 million people still have no access to electricity, leaving millions without modern lighting or energy to power industry.

Three quarters of the population live in rural areas, and the cost of providing electricity using traditional grid-based approaches has become increasingly expensive, as lines have to be extended ever further. It costs $1500 to connect a rural household to the grid, and it is therefore hardly surprising that electricity is failing to reach the millions living in remote areas of the country.

But Sri Lanka’s demand for power is growing fast at levels that are on average eight per cent per year. In a country where the average income is less than $4 a day in rural areas, many households in remote villages have to rely on car batteries to provide electricity.

Figure 1. In many parts of rural Sri Lanka, the only source of electricity is car batteries, which have to be carried many miles to be recharged at on-grid facilities
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However, this forces people to carry the batteries many miles at a time to re-charge them using on-grid facilities. The very fact that people are prepared to do this demonstrates that the demand for electricity in marginalized communities is strong.

Decentralized renewable energy systems offer an alternative way to provide energy to rural communities. They can be low cost, use local resources and can be managed and operated by the users. Over the last 25 years, there have been a number of failed attempts to use renewable energy for rural electrification, but in general these failed because systems were driven by technology, and not the needs, economies and culture of the community they were meant to serve.

Harnessing water power

One promising solution to the problem of electrifying rural and remote communities is small-scale water turbines, or micro-hydro systems, which can provide enough power for communities from natural water resources. The systems usually provide between 5 and 50 kW, enough to provide a community with lighting.

Because of this, one non-governmental organization adopted the technology as part of its work to improve the livelihoods of marginalized communities.

Practical Action (formerly ITDG, the Intermediate Technology Development Group) works in partnership with poor communities across the world to identify technologies which not only meet their needs, but which can be installed, maintained and, where appropriate, manufactured by local people to ensure the benefits are long term and remain within the community.

Since its Sri Lankan micro-hydro initiative began in 1989, Practical Action has successfully demonstrated that approaches such as small-scale turbines are extremely effective when the emphasis is placed not just on technology but also on understanding the social, cultural and economic issues of the community it serves.

Working together

Sabaragamuwa in southern Sri Lanka, an area that escaped the full impact of the recent tsunami, is one region that has benefited from electricity provided by micro-hydro systems, with Practical Action helping to establish several small-scale hydro systems over the last decade.

Communities from the province first approached Practical Action as they wanted electricity to improve their standard of living, and in particular, to provide lighting in their homes after dark and power radios to gain vital information such as crop prices and weather conditions. Villages also wanted to use electricity to improve their social facilities such as schools and health centres.

After an initial assessment by technical staff from Practical Action, communities met and agreed that the most effective solution would be micro-hydro schemes. The region has a suitable geography, with water readily available from streams throughout the area.

Figure 2. Canals dug by the local population direct water to the power house. Depicted here is the weir and the edge of the forebay at Dolapalledola
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The next step was to design and install the systems, which was done by the communities under the guidance of Practical Action’s technical experts and energy specialists. Local people from Sabaragamuwa dug the canals that take the water from streams and carry it to a point high enough to create enough force from the water dropping through the penstock to drive the turbine. This process of installing the canals and constructing the power house for the turbine took communities on average a year to complete.

By providing the manual labour, communities kept the cost of the hydro system to a minimum, which could vary between $1000 for smaller, pico-hydro systems to $70 000 for larger micro-hydro schemes.

Each community had responsibility for the operation and management of the scheme. To ensure the system was maintained and repaired to a high standard, selected groups within each community received comprehensive training. As a result, the micro-hydro system was guaranteeing a long-term future, and the community did not have to find money to carry out expensive repairs if the system ever broke down.

Transforming lives

The community-based approach to renewable energy has been a success. After a decade of use, the schemes continue to work, bringing significant benefits to villages across southern Sri Lanka.

Homes now have round-the-clock electricity providing lighting for homes and power for radios, essential for gaining access to crop prices at market, weather conditions and news events. Some households also have refrigerators to preserve food. Children can also see properly at night to do their homework, dramatically raising the standard of education.

With lighting installed at medical centres, staff and doctors can treat people more effectively at night, and life-saving vaccines can be stored in refrigerators. Local schools have also started to be used as community centres, as modern lighting has turned the buildings into ideal meeting places and social venues, thus enhancing the quality of life for the villages.

Figures 3 and 4. Each community managed its own scheme and is now responsible for its operation. The benefits are felt in everyday life, from appliances around the home to boosting local businesses
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Sabaragamuwa has also seen a financial boost. Electricity has kick-started local economies, with small businesses such as barbers, coffee shops and welding workshops being set up. Not only are these services less expensive than those in larger towns, but also the drudgery of having to travel many miles for the services has gone, allowing many to commit the saved time to income-generating activities and small businesses, and so feeding back further into the local economy.

In fact, the Sabaragamuwa scheme has proven so successful that the World Bank has established an energy services delivery project and commissioned Practical Action to develop engineering, manufacturing and community support initiatives to develop small scale, off-grid micro-hydro systems in other rural areas of Sri Lanka.

Powering the future

The future for micro-hydro in Sri Lanka is looking very positive. The technology has proved it can help deliver improvements in people’s livelihoods if used appropriately, and with an abundance of streams across the country and improving capacity to design, manufacture and install the systems, micro-hydro schemes could become one of the main energy options in the electrification of Sri Lanka.

Practical Action has demonstrated that when developed in partnership with local communities, small-scale renewable solutions can work to deliver rural electrification. If a scheme is to be sustainable, it must take into account the skills available for manufacturing and maintenance. Because technology is only half the story, for practical solutions like micro-hydro to deliver real, lasting change to poor communities, the technology must be firmly in the hands of local people, who can shape and control it for themselves.