Trip Dispatch Nepal: Powering the Everest Region with Hydro and Solar

Story and photos by April Matson

A scenic view of the solar-powered Pyramid Laboratory and Observatory in Nepal.

In May, I found myself half a world away from my home in Eugene, about to embark on a 40-mile trek to Mount Everest base camp in Nepal.

Upon arriving in the humid, subtropical capital city of Kathmandu—home to more than 1.4 million people—I was taken by the city’s frenetic pace and chaotic-looking power infrastructure. A tangle of lines connects power to homes and businesses throughout the city. While the lines didn’t look like the ones at home in Oregon, there was 1 common element. Much like the Pacific Northwest, Nepal is predominantly powered by hydro.

April reaches Mount Everest base camp.

In fact, more than 90% of Nepal’s electrical generation comes from hydroelectric plants, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development. This is partly due to the country’s lack of fossil fuels and abundant water resources. While hydro plays an important role in meeting Nepal’s energy demands, due to infrastructure limitations, there is a lack of access to reliable, grid-supplied electricity. The World Resource Institute notes that more than 3.5 million people in rural and remote areas don’t have access to electricity in their homes, schools, or healthcare facilities.

This disparity is apparent after a short flight from the capital to the small trekking village of Lukla, which marks the start of every adventure on the southeastern route to both base camp and the 29,031.7-foot peak of Everest, or Sagarmāthā as it’s known by the Nepali community.

A tangle of power lines connects power to homes and businesses throughout Kathmandu, Nepal.

Lukla is the 1st of the 8 main villages trekkers and climbers pass through on their 8,000-foot-plus climb to base camp. Lower villages are powered by small hydro stations and solar. The outpost of Tengboche at 12,687 feet is supplied by a mini-hydro station, the last of its kind on the trek. Solar is the primary generator from here as you cross beyond the tree line. Electricity in teahouses in the high-elevation villages of Dingboche, Lobuche, and Gorakshep is conserved during the day with the hope of power holding out through the night. Flip the light switch early in the morning, and you may not be greeted with light.

As I reached Mount Everest base camp after hiking 40 miles, I found myself reflecting on the similarities and challenges of providing power. Like the Northwest, Nepal’s power grid faces significant challenges related to extreme weather, political pressure, demand, and lack of power banking for solar. While it may be half a world from Oregon, the challenge of powering rural and urban communities is universal.