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Starting small: Microhydro schemes help to empower rural communities

As the world grapples with climate change, one challenge is the imperative to reduce our carbon emissions and reliance on fossil fuels. As such, renewable energy solutions such as small-scale, local hydroelectric projects present an attractive alternative at the local level.

Volunteers and village people work to assemble the 8.8kW (kilowatt) Pelton turbine at Pongobonon village in Sabah, a project that Mr Lasimbang and his team at CREATE worked on in April 2023. (Photo: Courtesy of Adrian Lasimbang)

For rural communities with limited or no access to a main power grid, electricity supply can pose a challenge. Often, these communities have to rely on bulky generator sets running on fuel to supply limited periods of electricity.
However, communities sited near rivers have a viable option for power generation, by installing a small-scale hydroelectric system, better known as “microhydro”.

These systems are usually rated to generate between 50W to about 100kW, although smaller ones are sometimes sufficient to power an entire rural village (such as in the photo above), albeit with certain limitations on what electrical appliances can be used on the microhydro grid.

A notice at Buayan village’s microhydro station, detailing what electrical appliances could be powered off the grid. (Photo: Vincent Tan)

In developing countries such as Malaysia, microhydro schemes, executed by non-governmental organisations (NGO) such as the Center for Renewable Energy & Appropriate Technology (CREATE) have helped improve the lifestyles of rural villagers, permitting the use of refrigerators, lighting and fan ventilation at their homes.
More locally, the Scottish government agency Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) is encouraging rural communities to get in touch with them to learn about the benefits of implementing a microhydro scheme.
According to a recent statement by FLS, there are already 85 hydro schemes hosted on FLS-managed land, with seven of these community-owned in Loch Broom, Mull, as well as Raasay and Loch Lomond. The rest are owned by private owners or operators, and renewables developers.

FLS’ Renewables Project Manager Malcolm Crosby, in a recent press statement, said water was one thing Scotland had in abundance, and was also a potential source of clean renewable energy communities could harness to generate electricity at a cheaper rate.

“Managing Scotland’s forests and land is a balancing act.”

A photo published of the Barr River Community hydro project. (Photo: Facebook/CARES at Local Energy Scotland)

“The impact of a renewable energy scheme means every proposal has to be carefully considered and ultimately, the decision to give consent to a renewable energy project is taken by the relevant local planning authority,” he stated.

Breakthrough Press also spoke to Adrian Banie Lasimbang, the founder and director of CREATE, about what got him started in microhydro projects and rural electrification, and the challenges involved.

CREATE-ing a rural electrification NGO

A simple question by a villager, during his visit to a highland village near the state capital, set Mr Lasimbang on his quest to explore the-then untapped potential of microhydro power.

“One of the items of discussion, when we were bathing in the river, was ‘How can we get electricity? Can we generate power from the river?’” Mr Lasimbang said.

Intrigued, Mr Lasimbang returned to his hometown of Penampang to try and find out more, but in the pre-Internet age, this proved challenging. Fortunately, his sister had returned from her studies in the United States and installed the first dial-up internet connection in the village.

This led to him discovering and joining a microhydro project in neighbouring Sarawak, gaining hands-on experience in installing microhydro projects.

Since then, CREATE has installed and commissioned over 40 community-based microhydro systems across the country, with 31 in both Malaysian Borneo states and the rest in the peninsula.

Mr Lasimbang examining the microhydro turbine that powers Buayan village in Sabah. (Photo: Vincent Tan)

Geography's role

“The advantage of microhydro in Malaysia is that we have an equatorial climate – we don’t have a distinct dry or wet season.

“We have continuous, more or less constant rain, meaning hydropower can run almost 365 days a year,” he said, barring occasional disruptions totalling a week or two each year.

Microhydro power, he added, was also suitable for Malaysia’s inland topography, and in particular, Borneo’s, as this system depended on elevation and gravity - the downward rushing water would power the turbine, converting energy from kinetic to mechanical to electricity.

However, a persistent challenge was that of logistics, with the cost and difficulty of transporting components into rural, inland areas in hilly terrain, but was still the most viable form of energy for the rural communities.

Terrain is a challenge, especially for transporting supplies and machinery for the microhydro dams to Malaysia’s inland villages. Here, Mr Lasimbang’s assistant helps a pickup truck with getting out of a rut, enroute to Buayan village to inspect the local microhydro generator. (Photo: Vincent Tan)

Rural empowerment

For Mr Lasimbang, the power generated by the microhydro project should be at least able to support the use of refrigeration in the community, rather than just basic lighting.

“Refrigeration is very, very important, it’s life-changing for remote communities, where they can keep their food fresh, and maintain hygiene.”

“They don’t have to keep hunting and fishing all the time because their food stays fresh,” he added. An added benefit is that the project can also help stimulate economic activity so that villagers could begin to pay the nominal tariffs for the project’s maintenance and upkeep.

“It’s managed like a utility provider, the only difference is that it’s community-owned, led and managed, with only some technical assistance from us,” Mr Lasimbang said.

Future challenges

Down the road, he added, the main challenge for rural communities and NGOs like CREATE was obtaining the “right” amount of funding. Many projects he had implemented had been limited by their grant sizes to an average of US$50,000.

“The size and scale we can do are limited to this US$50,000 and 10 kilowatts. Even though we can build larger systems for larger communities, we are constrained in terms of scale,” he said.

That said, CREATE has also sought workarounds by producing their own designs, and tried to reduce costs; such as scrounging for onsite building materials (to reduce transport costs by bringing in material from outside); organising the villagers to help with manpower, which itself was challenging as not many communities had the capacity to self-organise, and also suffered from youth migrating to urban centres for jobs.

“It’s quite sad to see the old people have to bear the burden, carry heavy stuff, so we have to deploy quite a number of volunteers to come and help, but that’s not easy and it also costs to bring the volunteers in,” Mr Lasimbang added.

Scotland has over 80 microhydro schemes, ranging from community-owned to private and government, running throughout the nation. (Photo: Facebook/Cumhachd Shlèite/Sleat Community Hydro)

Community effort

In the case of a recently-launched microhydro scheme in Raasay, in the Highland council area, the project took five years to secure funding, consent and accreditation.

A press release on the launch of the Raasay scheme stated that the two community-owned micro hydro schemes began generating power in September last year, with a 40-year lease secured from FLS via the government body’s Community Asset Transfer Scheme.

In the same press release, Raasay Renewables Development’s officer, Elizabeth Taggart said that the community asset transfer process from FLS had been straightforward, with support from FLS and a dedicated Liaison officer throughout.

In addition to setting up a community benefit fund, the community was also looking at novel ways of making the best use of the power generated and developing projects elsewhere, the release stated.

A map of Scotland’s currently operational microhydro projects. (Data based off Forestry and Land Scotland, accurate as of August 2022)


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