Exploring Pumped Storage Hydropower in the Himalayas – Part 1

In the first of a four-part blog series, AWP Program Lead Rohan Kent writes about his recent scoping mission with ANU on sites for Pumped Storage Hydropower in the Himalayan region.

As the dusk begins to wrap itself around my hilltop balcony, the deep green of the mountains – dotted with the colourful red, blue and green roofs – slowly gives way to a bright sparkle of lights. It’s these sparkles that represent the pace of progress, in the form of homes and other structures which creep their way up these impressive peaks in front of me.

We are in Gangtok the capital of Sikkim State, nestled in between Nepal to our left, Bhutan to our right and Tibet (China) to our front. At over 5,500 ft it feels as though we are on top of the world. But we know that over the course of the next three weeks, we will climb higher still.

This AWP project scoping mission led by ANU across three Himalayan States – India, Bhutan and Nepal – is being undertaken to better understand the opportunities of alternatives to the ever-expanding hydropower sector. An alternative that presents a more environmentally friendly and socially sustainable energy production option is through Pumped Storage Hydropower (PSH). It’s not the first time AWP has invested in this sector, but it’s the first time in this region.

PSH uses a configuration of two water reservoirs at different elevations to generate power, as water moves down from an elevated reservoir passing through a turbine, to a lower reservoir. The system also requires power as it pumps water back into the upper reservoir (recharge) which can be sourced through wind or solar power. The system then effectively acts similarly to a giant battery, because it can store power and then release it when needed, negating the reliance on the river flow.

This mission has a wonderful mix of academics and researchers, engineers, NGOs, government officials and former Ministers from the water and energy sectors. There’s even a former humanitarian thrown in for good measure. Over the next few weeks, our main purpose is to understand what experiences have been like in the past from energy providers, decision makers and importantly the villages dotted throughout this part of the Eastern Indian Himalayas. Listening and learning is key, as is unpacking and triangulating the information received to provide policy makers with options for the sustainable management of energy and the environment. Questions to be considered by the team are around how the land is managed, the intersection of energy, water, and livelihoods (including food), how the existing systems and processes could be improved and how all the stakeholders engage and interact within the sector.

The mission team reviews maps of the region.

Progress for some, could be those lights as they creep up the mountains. It could also be the rapid expansion of infrastructure by way of the railway line that we passed on our way into Gangtok to support the creep of the houses up the slopes. It could also be the replacing of traditional farming crops such as rice with more lucrative cash crops such as cardamon. Or maybe, progress – we hope – could be a steer away from current energy generating practices, to a practice that reduces environmental impact and increases sustainable energy production, such as PSH.

Rohan Kent visiting the Village Administrative Centre, Lingdok Nampong

Read Part 2 here: Water doesn’t just clean, it purifies

Featured image: The view from the balcony, Gangtok. Photos by Rohan Kent, AWP
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