How Solar Is Lighting the Way for Recovery in Nepal

(Photo: Milap Dwa)

Milap Dwa and Chij Kumar​, technicians from Gham Power​, installing a 120-watt solar PV system kit on top of one of the few houses in Barpak, Gorkha, that are still standing.

In the days following Nepal’s 7.8-magnitude earthquake on April 25, as massive power outages complicated relief efforts, Sandeep Giri and his coworkers were shaken but determined to help.

Giri, who was born and raised in Nepal, is the CEO of Gham Power, a solar company that’s been operating in Nepal for the last five years. After the earthquake, Gham Power’s employees sprung into action to deploy solar power systems that could power lights and mobile charging stations for relief workers and the displaced.

Besides basic needs like medical attention, food, water, and shelter, electricity is a major issue in the wake of a disaster, says Giri. “First, you don't want to be in the dark, as it's scary, you don't feel safe, and it is also very cumbersome to get or administer relief without light. Second, in this day and age, your first instinct is to reach out for your loved ones to check if they are okay and let them know you are OK. And when you reach for your mobile phone, it's dead and there is no place to charge it.”

Gham Power has teamed up with other local solar companies and is working with the Global Nepali Professional Network to raise money for distribution of as many solar power systems as possible. Together, they’ve launched a new campaign called Rebuild With Sun.

Their crowd-sourced Indiegogo campaign has an initial fundraising goal of $50,000 and provides a breakdown of how far a donation can go: A contribution of $50 provides lights and charging for one family: $100 buys a 20-watt system that can serve three families; and $500 can provide a 100-watt system, aiding 15 families and up to 100 phone users.

(Photo: Milap Dwa)

A woman from Barpak, Gorkha,​ with a solar-powered LED light she is using in her kitchen. Barpak is close to the epicenter of the deadly 7.8-magnitude earthquake that rattled Nepal on April 25, 2015.

They are also receiving support from organizations big and small. Conergy stepped up to match donations to the campaign. And SolarCity’s GivePower Foundation has committed to help solarize 200 Nepali schools as part of the disaster relief and long-term rebuilding. Leapfrog Technologies and Machnet (both based in Nepal) have pledged $10,000 to locally assemble 5-watt lights and charging units at low costs, which can be deployed to relief areas much more quickly than procuring units from outside Nepal. Other groups are also contributing funds or helping take solar kits to hard-hit areas.

But that’s just the beginning of what’s needed. 

Rebuild With Sun has a live map of power requests and completed projects, but the need is great. Giri estimates that as many as 650,000 mobile solar power kits are needed immediately to provide basic lighting and charging services—at a price tag of $18 million. And that doesn’t include what’s needed for relief workers to run heavy equipment, medical equipment, water pumps, and other tools—that could be another $5 million, Giri estimates.

“We are barely scratching the surface with our work at the moment, and we are already running out of supplies,” he says. “That’s why we need some immediate help, and why we launched our initial campaign.”

The work has become crucial and more complicated as Nepal continues to be hit by aftershocks, including a massive 7.3 earthquake on May 12. “It happened when we had staff in our office,” says Giri. “Almost everyone ran out. Some were so shell-shocked they couldn't even move, and had to be carried out by their colleagues.” Gham Power also had teams working in the field who were stuck at their work sites and unable to get home.  

“A greater sense of anxiety, psychological stress, further damage to infrastructure pretty much halted work on all fronts, and also the supply chain of relief materials coming in,” he says.

But even still, they’ve seen the impact that is possible from their efforts.

“We have seen rural clinics operated from outside their building because it was too dark inside to provide basic health services like cleaning up a wound, applying medicine,” says Giri. “While on the surface it doesn't sound like a whole lot, it is amazing how much impact is made by having lights and some basic power-charging capabilities.”

Much of the world’s current disaster relief infrastructure still relies on gasoline and diesel generators. “The fossil fuel alternatives are expensive, and in tight displaced communities, kerosene and candles can be a real fire danger,” says Alyssa Newman, who manages public affairs at Trina Solar and is part of the Rebuild With Sun team. Diesel generators are also dangerous if used improperly, and are loud, have fumes, and require a steady supply of fuel to keep running, which is another hurdle in post-disaster areas. 

(Photo: Milap Dwa)

The charger unit of a 20-watt​ solar PV system kit powering 10 mobile phones simultaneously. This system can also power 3 LED lights.

Solar systems provide an alternative or a complement to traditional power sources, but they are part of a much larger relief effort, as well as long-term rebuilding plans.

“I hope that people will see that we're trying to take care of the caretakers and help with infrastructure that can help relief workers and Nepalis in this crisis and beyond,” says Newman, who has also aided in other disaster responses, including the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. “We also want to be a voice for clean energy in Nepal, and plan on connecting our immediate response to a longer-term solar rebuilding effort.”

As Nepal turns to recovery and rebuilding, Giri and his colleagues have a more far-sighted vision for the country and renewable energy infrastructure. Prior to the quake, Nepal did not have a stable grid. Nearly a quarter of the population lived without electricity, and many more endured up to 16 hours a day of blackouts because there is simply not enough power to go around—even businesses with diesel generators still face fuel shortages and high costs. 

“We have always believed, especially in a mountainous country like Nepal, that implementing distributed energy systems like microgrids is the most robust way of building a sound and resilient energy infrastructure,” says Giri. “It’s good for the local infrastructure, and good for the planet.”

This is something Gham Power is already familiar with. Since 2010, it has completed more than 600 projects of varying sizes at such locations as a hospital, an Everest research station, and the U.S Embassy. The company has also been establishing microgrids in rural areas to help power small villages. 

“We feel quite confident in our capacity to execute quickly and efficiently,” says Giri. “That’s why we chose to focus on solar, something we know very well, and we also chose to focus on lights and charging kits and power stations first, since these will be the fastest to deploy using local resources.”

With enough support and coalition-building, they hope to continue to show that solar is important for Nepal, not just in times of crisis. “Climate change looms large for those of us working on energy and environmental issues,” says Newman, “and sometimes we need to all connect and work together to show how solar is a viable solution before and after disasters.”

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