World Environment Day: WFP Nepal Goes Solar
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Published on 5 August 2010

For much of the world, climate change is an abstract concept, but in Nepal it is a visible and ominous reality — just ask Country Director Richard Ragan. Between his first visits to Nepal as a mountaineer in the early 1990s and his return as WFP country director in 2006, he has witnessed first-hand Himalayan glacial melt and the resulting formation of the kilometer-long Imja Tse glacial lake.

“Twenty years ago when I first came here climbing, there was no lake at the bottom of the glacier. In less than two decades the status of the glacier on one of the largest mountain massifs has completely altered,” Richard says.The obvious impacts of global warming in Nepal, combined with the nation’s severe power constraints and daily electricity cuts, provided an urgent need for the country office to address its own dependence on fossil fuel energy. 

WFP Nepal began its journey towards climate-neutrality with the purchase of two electric vehicles in 2008. The office became an unintentional trend setter, and today sightings of ‘green’ cars darting through the capital city’s notorious traffic are common. The office then began to assess a larger and more serious approach to address its carbon footprint, and last month took a major leap forward with the first phase of a solar energy project. This included a 10-kilowatt peak grid-interactive power system plus ten stand-alone, solar-powered security lights. 

The purpose of the first phase is to eliminate the need to run the office’s large generator at night and on weekends. This means that solar energy will power the WFP server room, satellite and telephone communication systems and eleven computers, saving about 30,000 watt-hours per day.

Power cuts are a serious problem in Nepal as the national grid is unable to meet growing electricity demand. The country now faces 12 hours of daily power cuts. Richard came up with the original concept of the country office eventually becoming ‘grid free’. “Nepal is a country with abundant energy potential yet most people still live without power for 50% of the day. This just didn't make sense, so I felt we needed to demonstrate that there were alternatives,” he says. 

A second phase will power computers for more than 80 staff, all essential printers, and lights for the full work day. In addition, new LED lights designed for office use and fans to replace air conditioning will be installed as conservation measures. WFP Nepal will no longer require a generator or the 11,000 liters of fuel it uses each year. At least half the grid electricity demand will also be reduced. Through the two measures, nearly 30% of the greenhouse emissions at the Kathmandu office will be reduced and over 15% of country-wide emissions. This will eliminate at least 25 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year and will ultimately pay for itself through lower electricity costs. 

“I think it’s everybody's responsibility to come up with solutions to minimize their carbon footprint,” Richard says. “Collective responsibility is the only answer if we hope to keep the world in balance.  It's simply no longer acceptable to ‘remain in the dark’ about where and how we get our energy. I grew up in Louisiana and Mississippi where oil rigs dot the Gulf of Mexico. Everybody was blissfully happy because they didn't realize the risks . . . until now.” 

With help from the Nepal IT, administration and finance teams, the project was installed by Solar Solutions Nepal, a local partner of one of the largest solar companies in India. “This is the biggest urban grid-interactive solar project in Nepal,” says Solar Solutions Managing Director Raj Thapa. Staff have also started becoming more aware about saving energy and are excited about the solar project. “Just switching to solar doesn’t mean you are energy efficient. Additional conservation is required,” says ICT Officer Bhawana Upadhyay. “When people go home it is essential that they switch off their computers, printers, copiers, AC and lights in their rooms.” 

In addition, WFP Nepal has also implemented rainwater harvesting, composting and paper recycling on its Kathmandu premises. Expansion plans to the diesel-reliant sub-offices are underway. “Aside from the cost savings and doing our part to be more responsible energy consumers, I hope we set an example,” Richard says. “Isn't the United Nations supposed to do that?” Organisation-wide, part of the energy reduction process is calculating a carbon footprint and knowing where reduction efforts will pay off most. Last year, WFP took part in the UN’s first ever global greenhouse gas footprint survey. The survey was part of the UN-wide Climate Neutral initiative, and includes information on more than 1,100 WFP premises, 4,000 vehicles, over 15,000 flights and 4,000 air conditioning units. Results published earlier this year showed that overall WFP was the fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the UN system for the 2008 common ‘baseline year’, with a total of 64,198 tonnes of carbon-dioxide equivalent. That’s roughly the same as the emissions from burning 128,000 barrels of crude oil. 

Nepal is not alone in WFP’s green quest, and other projects completed or currently underway include the installation of a new energy efficient boiler and reduced heating/cooling hours at HQ; planned solar energy systems in Ghana, Haiti, Indonesia and Myanmar; a vehicle fleet upgrade and piloting of hybrid-electric vehicles; and the inclusion of sustainability criteria in procurement procedures. 

Further information on WFP’s emission reductions and greenhouse gas footprint — along with those of other UN agencies — can be found on the new UN website GreeningTheBlue.org. The site launched on June 4 as part of the celebrations for World Environment Day 2010, and highlights the progress that’s been made to move the UN-family towards greater sustainability and environmental awareness.