Power politics delays MCC in Nepal
Nepal's prolonged political deadlock has not just affected the country’s response to Covid-19, it has also delayed the implementation of an American-aided project to upgrade Nepal’s electricity transmission grid.
The controversial Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) project is the biggest single bilateral grant for a specific project in Nepal by a foreign country, but has become the focus of an intense power struggle rival parties, and is tangled in regional and global geopolitics.
A big part of the $500 million MCC grant is ear-marked for the Kathmandu-Hetauda-Butwal 400KVa transmission line which will eventually evacuate electricity generated from existing and new hydropower plants on the Budi Gandaki, Trisuli, Kali Gandaki, Marsyangdi, Kosi, and Tamakosi corridors, and link it to Gorakhpur in India. A smaller component of the project will upgrade arterial highways. The Nepal government is putting up another $130 million as a counterpart fund.
However, critics in Nepal see the MCC as America’s strategic counter to China’s Belt Road Initiative. The comment by US Under Secretary of State David J Ranz in 2019 that the MCC was indeed a part of the US Indo-Pacific Strategyadded fuel to the fire.
Sandwiched between India and China, Nepal was already in a strategic tight spot, but a recent flare-up in Sino-Indian tension and US-China rivalry have caught Nepal in the crossfire. In addition, opponents of Prime Minister K P Oli have weaponised the MCC and used the project to weaken his position.
But Nepal’s energy planners say that even if the MCC is delayed or cancelled, the country will have to find alternatives to build the transmission lines.
“We cannot afford this uncertainty we must have a Plan B in place, otherwise we will face a huge problem. There will be all this electricity being generated in the next few years, but no way to take it to consumers,” says Hitendra Dev Shakya, who heads the Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA). “We have to build the transmission lines with or without American aid.”
The reason behind the transmission line being prioritised is to send the electricity produced from throughout Nepal, and any future monsoon surplus can then be exported to India and the same lines can be used to import power in winter if required.
New projects with a generation capacity of 330MW are under construction on the Bhote Kosi in Rasuwa and Nuwakot. A further 500MW will be generated from other hydropower schemes whose construction was delayed due to the pandemic.
New 220KVa transmission lines are ready to bring that electricity to Kathmandu Valley, but they only have the capacity to carry the new load from projects now under construction. But the NEA has already made Power Purchase Agreements (PPA) to buy about 6,000MW of electricity from private operators, and the distribution of that power will depend on the MCC-funded distribution system. The NEA says it urgently needs another transmission link to bring power from plants on the Tama Kosi to Kathmandu and to eastern Nepal via Hetauda.
The MCC was set up in 2004 by the US Congress during the George W Bush presidency to help developing nations reduce poverty through financial aid. Since then, as Sino-US tensions grew it has taken on a strategic dimension as the two powers compete for global connectivity. The $500 million MCC grant to Nepal was sanctioned in 2017 to improve Nepal’s energy and road infrastructure.
Nepal was suffering 18 hours of power cuts a day when the agreement was signed, and after much deliberation, Nepal’s planners, politicians and bureaucrats decided that transmission lines were the most urgently needed since powerplants were already under construction. The generated electricity need to be taken to load centres, this would increase the renewable component of Nepal’s energy mix by replacing imported petroleum, and finally, to export any surplus to India.
Meanwhile, the Millennium Challenge Authority Nepal (MCA-Nepal) has been set up and the office has already finalised the design of the 315km transmission line of 400KVa capacity with three new sub-stations. But the delay in Parliament’s ratification of the project means it cannot issue tender bids, and this will put 2,600MW of electricity at risk of being wasted in eh coming two years.
Khadga Bahadur Bista, the CEO of MCA-Nepal estimates about it takes up to five months to select a contractor even if the project is ratified by Parliament, and after that, it will take another nine months to start construction.
“We are all set to kick start this project and are ready to call for international tender bids, but due to it still pending in the Parliament we have not been able to make progress,” Bista told Nepali Times.
Just Do It
The NEA says that Nepal is now generating 1,400MW of electricity, and this is set to more than triple in the next three years to 5,000MW, with the largest hydropower project so far in Nepal, the 456MW Upper Tama Kosi coming on stream in July, if it is not delayed again by the lockdown.
Other hydroelectricity projects totalling 2,500MW are planned are in the financial negotiations stage, they are set to come into operation by 2026.
But the more urgent need is power transmission to accommodate the new projects in the next three years as Nepal struggles to keep up with demand. The current peak demand is 1,150MW, which drops to 700MW at night. Generation capacity also fluctuates during the monsoon and dry season between surplus and scarcity because most of the hydro projects are of the run-of-river type without large reservoirs.
To avoid electricity from going to waste during the monsoon, Nepal can export the surplus power to India, and import in winter. The agreements are in place with India to facilitate power trade, but current transmission lines cannot bear future load. The MCC-funded transmission lines are also required for domestic distribution and grid management.
The present Dhalkebar-Muzaffarpur crossborder transmission line connects India and Nepal but can only handle 1,000MW each way, but practically it can only bear 800MW. This means by late next year, Nepal’s new surplus monsoon electricity is sure to go waste.
This will not just be a wasted opportunity for Nepal to reduce its trade imbalance and partly pay for its winter power import from India, but also affect private hydropower investors in Nepal. This scenario can be avoided if the proposed 400KVa Butwal-Gorakhpur transmission line.
The catch here is that the NEA has signed an understanding with the private hydropower investors that it will buy electricity they generate only if the surplus can be exported to India. Any delay in building the Butwal-Gorakhpur transmission line to India, therefore would ultimately impact Nepal’s own private power producers. This put their investment at risk, affect the banking sector, and ultimately Nepal’s overall economy.
Critics of the MCC have pointed out that exporting power to India is not a priority, and Nepal should use power from the new projects to foster value-added energy-intensive industries in Nepal itself. However, the MCC transmission lines will be needed even to feed power within the country.
In addition, at the rate power demand is rising in Nepal, even if 5,000MW is generated in the monsoon, the capacity of the run-of-river schemes will drop to one-third in the dry season – as it has done during this year’s winter drought. The higher capacity transmission lines are therefore required to import power from India until such time as Nepal’s generation capacity in winter is augmented with storage projects like Budi Gandaki.
NEA’s Shakya says the MCC project will form a backbone of Nepal’s electricity grid, and by linking it to the Indian grid it will be more robust and flexible, allowing load sharing and management. The MCC-funded transmission lines are also critical for meeting Kathmandu Valley’s future demand growth, to transfer power generated in eastern Nepal to the western half of the country during the monsoon, and from west to east in the winter.
Fortunately, electricity supply and demand in Nepal and India complement each other. In summer, when demand rises in India Nepal has surplus power, and in winter when Nepal’s supply cannot meet demand, it can import from India.
The same is true within Nepal. There is a nearly one month lag between the time the monsoon arrives in eastern Nepal in early June, and by the time it starts raining heavily in western Nepal in mid-July. This means projects in eastern Nepal are already operating at full capacity, and the surplus electricity can be sent to western Nepal where it is still dry – if there was the necessary east-west transmission system.
“The risk that we will have to face in the coming years if this project does not materialise will be unimaginable,” Shakya warns. “If these transmission lines are not built through the MCC grant, we have to immediately start moving towards an alternative.”
Nepal signed the MCC Compact Agreement in September 2017 which allowed the MCC Board in Washington to release the grant amount of $500 million (Rs59 billion) for the development of Nepal’s electricity transmission line and road infrastructure. But everything has been stuck for more than a year because a provision in the agreement that required ratification by Parliament.
The Americans insisted on this clause so that the project would be valid no matter which government was in power in Nepal, but that is also the reason that the MCC has become a punching bag for those against Prime Minister Oli—even though his predecessors in other parties opposing the project were in government when the agreement was signed. The NC leadership which is now in the opposition, as well as NCP leaders that included the Maoist Centre and UML, who are vehemently getting the MCC scrapped today were involved in approving and planning the project.
Foreign affairs experts explain that the MCC has been caught up in domestic oneupmanship between Nepal’s leaders and international geopolitics. Nepal’s politicians have a tendency to be north-facing or south-facing, or both, and are generally not able to work together for the national interest. This is made worse by the absence of trust, and a lack of dignity.
The US side has informed the government that the MCC grant is not open-ended and the deadline is looming. However, the MCC has also suffered collateral damage as Prime Minister Oli dissolved the Lower House on 20 December, and then ended the winter session on 19 April. The Special Session has been called for 10 May as Prime Minister Oli seeks a confidence vote. If he loses, the country will go for early elections in six month’s time. The budget session of the House could pass the MCC, but with the intense political polarisation, it will not be easy.
Despite the agreement being signed by both governments, therefore, it is languishing because of Nepal’s internal dynamics. The main objection from the detractors is that it is a part of the Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States, and that several provisions of the agreement undermine the sovereignty of Nepal.
Bhim Rawal, a staunch anti-Oli UML leader, as well as Pushpa Kamal Dahal and other Maoist Centre leaders are against the agreement being ratified by Parliament, more because of their opposition to a project Oli is pushing than other reasons. A committee constituted under the convener of UML leader Jhalanath Khanal and others had recommended last year that the agreement be passed with amendments.
Though the project has still not got off the ground, it has already spent about $3 million for preparations, which the US and Nepal government have shared half-half. It was used for the mapping and design of the transmission lines, the pylons, sub-stations, and preparing tender documents.
The EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report of the overall project is in the final stages. The task of acquiring the land under the project in Ratmate of Nuwakot, where the sub-station will be constructed is nearing completion. The Nepal government has allocated Rs10.3 billion this fiscal year for MCC, but till mid-December only Rs140 million had been spent.