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How Rivers Are Powering Energy Solutions for Malaysia’s Rural Community

Hydropower has a long and important history in Malaysia, forming a crucial foundation of power supply to the nation. After all, if there’s one thing we can rely on, it’s the rain! In fact, Malaysia has the highest average rainfall in Asia, and the 8th highest in the world. The question is – what’s the best way to make the most of that resource?

As the nation has grown, so too has the capability and capacity of our hydroelectric technology, contributing almost 20% of total installed electricity generation capacity by the end of 2015. The team at Energy Watch recently had the pleasure to speak with Dr. Mohd. Hariffin Boosroh, General Manager of Generation and Environment at TNB Research Sdn. Bhd., to find out what the future might hold. He revealed that the biggest changes might be delivered in the smallest packages.

The changing view on hydroelectric

When it comes to hydroelectric, big is not always better. This position was established by Minister of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change (MESTECC), Yeo Bee Yin, in declaring that large-scale hydroelectric power will no longer factor into Malaysia’s renewable energy targets. However, this change will likely not impact existing large-scale projects according to Dr. Hariffin.

Dr Hariffin from TNB Research speaks about the company’s pico hydro ventures.

“Peninsular Malaysia’s outstanding large-scale hydropower potential is quite limited, although the situation is different in Sabah and Sarawak. It’s important to note that changing the definition doesn’t change the hydropower we already have. It’s already there, and I believe that it is valuable to a large extent, offering reliable power and grid stability.”

Large-scale hydro has become more controversial in recent years. While offering high-capacity, carbon-free power, growing focus on local impacts has led to more cautious uptake. The Three Gorges Dam in China, both the world’s largest hydropower and largest power station, displaced over a million people, with widespread concern over the ultimate impact to wildlife, environment and fisheries. In Malaysia, Dr. Hariffin is keen to highlight the detailed work that often goes overlooked in tackling these impacts.

“With hydro there’s a perception that we don’t think about the environment. Actually, we do a lot of work to ensure that the environment is retained. We work to take care of local wildlife, while also caring for local flora and fauna. We invest a lot into this, while wider enforcement is maintained by government agencies,” said Dr. Hariffin.

So, if large-scale hydro offers a solution increasingly viewed as being from the past, how are smaller solutions innovating towards solutions for the future?

Micro-hydro gets big

Recently redefined targets aim to achieve renewable energy as 20% of the country’s electricity generation by 2020, up from 2% today. As part of that goal, small-scale hydro is a particularly important solution for bringing power to rural areas, one highlighted by Minister Yeo as a crucial technology for expanding electrification. But what does that difference mean in practice?

  • Large hydro is more than 10 megawatts
  • Small hydro is smaller than 10 megawatts
  • Mini hydro is smaller than 1 megawatt
  • Micro hydro is smaller than 100 kilowatts
  • Pico hydro is smaller than 5 kilowatts

“TNB Research is already working with partners like the Malaysia Design Development Centre (DDEC) to run a partnership on pico hydro projects. We’re working on a pilot in Bentong, in the Orang Asli settlement of Kampung Sungai Delam, providing light for the kampung that enables kids to read at night alongside other basic needs,” said Dr. Hariffin.

TNB’s Chief Corporate Officer, Datuk Wira Roslan, presenting a donation to the Tok Batin Kampung Sungai Delam community.

These projects provide an exciting opportunity to bring power to rural communities. Unlike solar power, small-scale hydro projects require relatively limited upkeep, and offer a cost-effective solution that provides power during the night hours when it is most needed.

This is like free power to the people.

“This is like free power to the people. And what’s best is it’s community-driven. The programme is proposed and run by the people who live there. The project itself might be installed by a government agency or perhaps an NGO, but the daily operations, maintenance, and upkeep of the project is done by the community,”continues Dr. Hariffin.

The benefits of this community-drive initiative is multiple-fold. Members of the community are taught the simple steps to keep the hydropower running, essentially helping them become self-sufficient as they undertake the responsibility of generating their own energy.

Currently, Kampung Sungai Delam is being used as reference model for the efficacy of pico hydro projects in Malaysia. In Indonesia, pico hydros are already a popular solution for electrifying rural communities, due to the country’s sheer size and its number of islands which are widely spread out and unconnected to the nation’s power grid.

The nature of these low-cost solutions is why innovators and decision makers are increasingly focusing on small-scale hydro as an important part of Malaysia’s exciting hydro-future.

The hydro-future is evolving

Renewable energy is a field driven by innovation, and one which is driving continuing improvements in cost benefits and efficiency that continues to accelerate global adoption. TNB Research is itself working on these innovative new solutions for hydropower.

“We’re working on a new turbine design that will deliver improved efficiency for hydropower, meaning you get more power for the same amount of water. That means more power from hydro, so greater displacement of fossil fuels,” said Dr. Hariffin.

When it comes to hydro, it seems that big solutions may well come in small packages. The people of Bentong are already enjoying these benefits today, but the opportunity it represents offers far wider potential. We’ve got the rain, so we might as well make the most of it. Thanks to the work of organisations like TNB Research, that’s exactly what we’re able to do.

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