Friday, January 28, 2011

Load-Shedding Explained

After my allusion to limited electricity in yesterday's post, most of you probably spent a sleepless night (or, wait, that was just me, as I am 10 hours and 45 minutes ahead of most of you) wondering and worrying about the electricity supply in Nepal. Well, it was a mystery to me as well until I arrived here last week, but now I can explain.

As autumn turned into winter, Brian and I watched as our friends in Nepal began posting Facebook status updates bemoaning the impending "load-shedding." What was this load-shedding, we wondered, and what were we getting ourselves into?

Load-shedding refers to the planned power cuts that the Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) must impose in order to cope with mismatched supply and demand. Nepal relies on hydropower for electricity, and while water is Nepal's greatest natural resource, there are a few problems with hydropower in this country.

First, there is the issue of seasons. Nepal has a dry season, generally from October through March, and a wet season, typically from April through September. When the water levels are low in the dry season, the NEA has to forcibly reign in electricity consumption with scheduled power cuts, which, at their worst, make up 12-14 hours of each day. Here is the current load-shedding schedule; it is generally reliable, but in practice the time blocks may differ by an hour or more:

In case you are curious, I live in Group 7.

When the water table is high during the wet season, the NEA can provide residents with more electricity -- there are still scheduled power cuts, but typically only for 1-2 hours a few days per week.

As a local water resource analyst points out, though, the NEA should be able to provide consistent electricity during the wet season, and it is because of poor management of the hydropower plants, which often operate below full capacity, that residents have to suffer through load-shedding even when the rivers are running high. He notes that there was load-shedding even during the devastating floods of 2008.

Although the load-shedding schedule ensures that all areas equally receive (or do not receive) electricity, this nod to fairness stops there. I am fortunate enough to live in a home with an inverter, which allows us to power our laptops, run wireless internet, and use low-watt light bulbs even when the electricity is off. Many people, though, cannot afford an inverter (depending on the inverter and its capability, prices start at about $60 and go up to as much as $3,000 or more). At my office, for example, there is no inverter, so people make due with calculators and natural light and otherwise work at odd hours of the day if work necessitates a computer and internet.

So while I am probably killing my eyesight by reading under a single 3-watt bulb at night, I am still thankful to have those 3 watts.

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