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Nepal’s Hydropower Battered but not Beaten by the Quake

The Kathmandu-based República online news service reported last week that over a dozen hydropower facilities were significantly damaged by last month's earthquake and were not operating. The affected plants’ combined capacity of roughly 150 megawatts (MW) represents about one-fifth of Nepal’s total power supply—which is 93 percent hydropower—but the damage may not be long-lasting according to state utility Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA).

NEA told República that Nepal's remaining hydropower plants and about 210 MW of imported power from India was enabling it to distribute about 564 MW total.  And its 144-megawatt Kaligandaki hydroelectric power station—Nepal’s largest—is not on the list of damaged projects. A 27 April report from industry news source Hydroworld had initially raised concerns about Kaligandaki, citing local news sources.

Sher Singh Bhat, NEA’s deputy managing director, told República that some of the most severe damage from the Magnitude 7.8 quake was at NEA’s 10 MW Sunkoshi Hydropower Project, where “severe leakage” was observed. At the same time, some damaged plants could keep running, such as NEA’s 60 MW Kulekhani project was operating in spite of cracks that opened at the top of its dam. 

Bhat noted that other damaged projects could be fixed “within weeks” -- once workers and heavy equipment operators became available. These include the 24 MW Trishuli plant, where cracks opened in the “crest” of a reservoir and landslides destroyed the workers’ quarters; another 14 MW plant downstream at Devighat can only run after Trishuli restarts. 

More serious damage was wrought upstream of the Trishuli plant at the construction works of the 60 MW Upper Trishuli 3A project. A landslide killed four employees at the site and caused “severe” damage to tunnels and a suspension bridge. 

Nepal’s biggest independent hydropower project—the 45 MW Upper Bhotekoshi plant—was immediately shut down after being struck by boulders wrought loose from overlying cliffs. Narendra Prajapati, CEO of Bhotekoshi Power Company, told República that the penstock pipe that feeds water to Upper Bhotekoshi’s turbines was damaged and they assume that its generators had been flooded as a result. 

While Nepal’s 150 MW of idled capacity sounds small by the standards of developed industrial economies, the impact of any loss in power supply is massive for Nepal because the country is already vastly underpowered. Power outages are a daily reality, even in Kathmandu. 

NEA’s latest Load Shedding schedule is one of the standard links atop every page at MyRepú, telling readers how electricity supplies will shape their day much like a daily weather report. On Saturday 25 April NEA expected to shut off power in Kathmandu from 6-8 am, and then again for another four hours in the afternoon. The schedule warns, however, that load shedding could shift forward or back by one hour depending on conditions. 

In recent years Nepal has been accelerating hydropower developments. At least one of which has been set back by the earthquake: the 111-MW Rasuwagadhi hydropower dam under construction by Chinese hydropower giant Three Gorges Corporation. Two Chinese workers were killed in the earthquake, and the dam was “severly damaged” according to Three Gorges. Chinese military helicopters rescued 280 Chinese workers from the site within days of the quake, while the New Yorker reported that Three Gorges’ 350 Nepali workers were “left to walk” out of the remote region

Much more hydropower investment is slated for Nepal. Three Gorges has contracts to build two other projects in Nepal, including the comparatively massive $1.6-billion, 750-MW West Seti project approved by Kathmandu less than two weeks before the April earthquake. And Indian-financed megaprojects in the development pipeline —including a pair approved last year worth $2.4 billion—would add another 1,800 MW to Nepal’s power generating capacity. 

It is important to note that these Himalayan heavyweights are financing Nepalese projects primarily as a source of power for their own economies. Such projects’ benefit to Nepal is more financial than electrical. For example, all but 12 percent of the 900 MW to be generated by the Indian-financed Upper Karnali project is to be exported. 

The New Yorker raised another potential caveat to the hydropower-filled future Nepal has been developing: the risk that hydropower megaprojects could induce future earthquakes. Human-induced seismicity is a real liability associated with a growing number of energy projects, including oil and gas production, geothermal energy, and—in some cases—hydropower projects. 

However, for hydropower, it is the shifting weight of water stored in reservoirs that has been linked to earthquakes such as 7.9 Sichuan quake that devastated central China in 2008. Many of the Nepalese projects rely on a run-of-river design that exploits its rivers’ strong, steady currents rather than storing lots of water behind big dams.

A real and longer-term threat is the melting of Himalayan glaciers, which threatens to increase flooding and landslides and in the longterm could reduce Nepal’s raging rivers to trickles. Nepal lost over a quarter of its glacier mass between 1980 and 2010, according to a 2014 report from the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development

How future melting will play out for river flows is, however, unclear. The same research center reported in 2013 that glacial melting in the Himalayas could peak by 2070, thus preserving river flows in key watersheds. 

Hawaii Votes to Go 100% Renewable

Hawaii’s legislature voted yesterday to stake the state’s future on renewable energy. According to House Bill 623, the archipelago’s power grids must deliver 100 percent renewable electricity by the end of 2045. If the compromise bill is signed by the governor as expected, Hawaii will become the first U.S. state to set a date for the total decarbonization of its power supply. 

Renewable energy has been booming since 2008 when the state set a goal of making renewables 40 percent of its power mix by 2030, and government and utility incentives ignited wind power and solar installations. By the end of 2013, renewable energy had jumped from 7.5 percent to 18 percent of the state’s capacity. HB623 seeks to extend and turbo-boost that trend, calling for 30 percent renewables in 2020 and 70 percent by 2030 en route to the final leap to 100 percent.

That last jump could be difficult, says Peter Crouch, a power grid simulation expert and dean of engineering at the University of Hawaii’s flagship Manoa campus. “Today I don’t know whether we can do it,” he says.

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Electricity Use Could Soar as Global Middle Class Embraces Air Conditioning

Energy use in U.S. and European homes is predicted to flatten, for the most part. But it will soar in developing and middle-income countries. The main culprit, according to new research from the University of California, Berkley, is air conditioning.

In China, sales of air conditioners have nearly doubled in the last five years, with more than 60 million units sold in 2013 alone.

Using data from Mexico, researchers at UC Berkley’s Haas School of Business built a model that took into account the relation between climate, income, and air conditioning.

When accounting for increases in incomes and expected higher temperatures, they found the number of homes with air conditionings would rise from 13 percent today to more than 70 percent at the end of the century.

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U.S. Hydropower Fleet has Upside Power and Storage Potential

Hydropower has a dowdy, low tech image that conjures visions of concrete and degraded ecosystems. It is mostly shut out of the incentives driving solar, wind and other newer forms of renewable energy. InsideClimate News just dubbed it the “Unloved Renewable.” How wrong this image is according to a first-of-its-kind comprehensive study of the U.S. hydropower industry released by the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee. 

ORNL researchers found that U.S. hydropower grew by 1.5 gigawatts to 79.6 GW over the past decade, thus holding on to its seven percent share of U.S. power supply. In so doing it is offsetting roughly 200 million metric tons of carbon emissions per year, equivalent to taking more than 42 million cars off the road.

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Micromotors to Boost Hydrogen Fuel Cells

Hydrogen fuel cells promise vehicles whose only emission is water. But their appearance, at least as a one-to-one replacement for internal combustion engines, has been stymied by the challenges of storing hydrogen gas. Now researchers say micromotors could help vehicles generate hydrogen gas on board in order to power hydrogen fuel cells.

Hydrogen fuel cells work by combining hydrogen with oxygen from the air to generate electricity and water vapor. Instead of storing hydrogen gas in bulky pressurized tanks, scientists have suggested storing the fuel in the form of liquids loaded with hydrogen-containing salts such as sodium borohydride, which release hydrogen gas when exposed to a metal catalyst.

Most catalysts that are used to release hydrogen from sodium borohydride have come in the form of either nanoparticles or thin films. But the speed and efficiency with which these systems release hydrogen is limited by deactivation of the catalysts by poor mixing of the fuel or accumulation of the catalytic reactions’ byproducts.

Now scientists at the University of California, San Diego, suggest they have solved these problems by using 20-micron-wide particles that act like self-propelled micromotors. These so-called "Janus particles" have two different faces, just like the Roman god Janus; one side is made of a very fine catalytically active platinum powder, while the other is coated with titanium. They detailed their findings online in the 23 April edition of the journal Angewandte Chemie.

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First X-ray Views Inside Overheating Lithium-ion Batteries

For the first time, scientists have looked inside a lithium-ion battery as it failed due to overheating. The researchers suggest learning more about such "thermal runaways" can help improve the design and safety of these batteries.

When a lithium-ion battery overheats, it can burn through pockets, burst into flames, or even explode. Although such thermal runaways are rare, they do happen regularly enough to lead some engineers to explore the creation of lithium-ion batteries with their own fire alarms or search for signal processing tricks that can predict fires.

To learn more about how thermal runaway happens—and perhaps how to prevent it—scientists at University College London and their colleagues scanned overheating lithium-ion batteries at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France. The image resolution from the X-rays generated at this particle accelerator is far greater than that of conventional X-ray machines. They detailed their findings online in the 28 April edition of the journal Nature Communications.

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The Promise of Precision Agriculture in Drought-Ridden California

When California Governor Jerry Brown announced a mandatory 25 percent cut in water consumption in the coming year for urban areas, many people protested that the state’s agricultural industry, which is responsible for the lion’s share of human water consumption, was not included in the restrictions.

The governor countered that farms, which lap up about 80 percent of the water used in the state, have already made sacrifices and will likely have to make more.

Some Central Valley Project water contractors will face a second year of receiving no water and some San Joaquin Valley irrigation districts are delivering no more than 25 percent of normal supplies, according to the University of California Davis. As more farmers face dwindling supplies, there are variety of high tech tools, including GPS, sensors and big data analytics, to help them manage water supply; if they can get them at the right price. 

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NRC Opposes European Moves to Tighten Nuclear Safety Post-Fukushima

Nuclear power plants’ reactor pressure vessels (RPVs)—the massive steel jars that hold a nuclear plant’s fissioning fuel—face incessant abuse from their radioactive contents. And they must be built with extra toughness to withstand pressure and temperature swings in the event of a loss-of-cooling accident like the one that occurred at Fukushima in 2011. As the triple meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi showed, the next layer of defense against a nuclear release—the so-called containment vessels—can not be counted on to actually contain molten nuclear fuel that breaches the RPV.

Nuclear safety authorities have recently discovered weaknesses in several RPVs, and their contrasting responses suggest that the ultimate lessons from Fukushima are still sinking into international nuclear power culture—especially in the United States, where the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is resisting calls to mandate tougher inspection of RPVs.

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Drought May Force California’s Water System Into the 21st Century

As California withers in its fourth year of extreme drought, Governor Jerry Brown has ordered a mandatory 25 percent cut in water consumption in the coming year for the state’s local water supply agencies that serve urban areas.

Although the current order is short term, it could ultimately help transform how California’s city dwellers use water, especially in terms of how data and analytics aid in conservation.

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