Pico-hydro systems — also known as “'family hydro' since a single family will typically be responsible for the instillation, utilization, and maintenance of the system" — "deliver electricity at the scale of households and small communities, and can become an essential tool for expanding energy access for the 800 million people in Asia without electricity." Pico-hydropower covers all hydroelectricity units under a 5kW capacity.
In Laos—a regional lead user of Pico-Hydro technologies where one unit benefits 1.5 households—Pico-Hydro units "meet the needs of about 90,000 households and could serve 200,000 to 250,000 more. But to reach these customers, challenges related to education, maintenance, changing river flows, training, and applicability will have to be overcome.
"Micro-hydropower promises to remain a salient issue well into the future for two reasons. The first is size. Big scale dams bring big scale impacts. Total installed capacity and investments in hydropower have dwarfed that of all other major renewable sources of energy. China roughly doubled its hydroelectric capacity from 2004 to 2009 and significant expansion is expected in Brazil, India, Russia, Turkey and Vietnam. Yet every year about four million people are displaced by activities relating to hydroelectricity construction or operation, and 80 million have been displaced in the past 50 years from the construction of 300 large dams. Smaller, more efficient, environmentally friendly hydro-power systems bring many of the benefits of hydroelectricity — reliability, simplicity, less maintenance, low operating expenses — without their immense costs.
"The UK’s Department for International Development commissioned a study published in 2004 suggesting a global market for low head pico-hydro of around four million units based on willingness to pay estimates, proximity to a watercourse, and electrification status. While this technology has been especially pronounced in countries outside the region like Nepal, Ecuador, and Kenya, Southeast Asian countries have also found widespread use for it.
"Despite these facts, pico-hydro remains relatively obscure among available renewable energy technologies, especially in the international aid world... Some claim these organizations deliberately overlook this 'invisible technology' for the sake of more modern alternatives like solar panels or small wind turbines... Pico-hydro schemes have been celebrated as pro-poor solutions with numerous social and environmental benefits.
"According to a 2007 technical report conducted by ESMAP, both 300W and 1kW pico-hydro systems generate electricity at significantly lower cost than competing off-grid technologies such as photovoltaics, wind, and diesel generators. Their forecast suggests that larger-scale pico generation costs could dip below US$0.10/kWh by 2015, making it cost-competitive against grid-based electricity in several countries in the region.
"Governments may presume these households will eventually gain grid access, but the economics will typically favour decentralised solutions, especially for communities with low population densities and demand levels. Agencies should adopt the view that for some households, pico-hydro represents a transition technology until grid connection is made, while it will serve as an endpoint for other households. Households too poor to afford pico-hydro now will likely not be candidates for grid connection in the future."
"Small-scale hydropower systems, which displace the need to build intensive electricity grids, and are much less susceptible to cost overruns, can literally change the game in how electricity is provided in some of the world’s poorest areas."
Problems facing the larger uptake of pico-hydro power seem to represent larger issues of pro-poor solutions. Issues range from the availability of local language manufacturing manuals, to a focus on low cost products at the cost of proper regulation and consumer education, to a lack of government support.
This signal also speaks to 2 broader implications:
1. There may perhaps be limits in our quest to develop. For some communities, they may never be able to afford to join the "grid." Once we become comfortable with this realization we can begin to provide appropriate solutions for these communities, such as government support for pico-power solutions and legitimization of slums for example.
2. We will continue to be distracted by glamourous yet less beneficial technologies. Pro-poor development and growth strategies will continue to be important in their ability to illuminate alternative and appropriate technologies to governments, communities, and aid agencies.
LKYSPP Asian Trends Monitoring Bulletin, Singapore. Sept 2010: http://newsletters.clearsignals.org/LKYSPP_Sept2010.pdf