In 2006, seven engineer friends from Kerala, each pursuing diverse careers, entered into a pact for the future. They decided to return to their homeland and pioneer a business that would epitomize engineering, breaking free from corporate cubicles and embracing hands-on work in harmony with nature.
In 2014, one of them, Rakesh Roy, stumbled upon a news article about the Kerala government allotting 16 projects to private developers, which also mentioned Small Hydro Projects (SHP). It immediately sparked his interest in setting up an SHP at his land in Idukki through which a hill stream -- Parathodu -- flows.
What started as a small idea shared among friends has now evolved into Kerala's first self-identified private SHP, Mukkudam Electroenergy Private Limited.
In October this year, after many years of groundwork, the company began power generation and is supplying it to the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB), marking a significant milestone in its journey.
"Since childhood, I had spent time learning to swim and play in the stream that passes through our land in my hill village Kambilikandam in the Idukki district. When I began thinking of SHP, I knew the hill stream had abundant water flow,” says Rakesh Roy, Chairman, Managing Director and Plant Head of Mukkudam Electroenergy.
“With my engineering background, I knew a small hydro project was possible in the terrain with the construction of a weir -- a mini dam-like diversion channel -- over the Partahodu stream, which exhibits an elevation drop of approximately 1070 feet or 323.7 meters from the hilltop to the land surface in Mukkudam,” he adds.
Research and groundwork
When Rakesh shared this possibility with his friends, Unni S Sankar, Nitish S J, Renjini M, Faris E M, Cyriac Jose, and Rijo Joseph, they were excited and joined him. Rakesh says they first began by collecting data related to the project and also sought help from PD Nair, who pioneered SHP in Kerala.
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"At that time, he was heading a SHP in Adimaly and he helped us with the data. Besides, the state government's nodal agency, Energy Management Centre Kerala (EMC), also supported and guided us throughout the process. We were directed to get permission from authorities and conduct a project study," Rakesh shares, adding that at that point, they focused on understanding the project's viability.
In 2015, Rakesh and his friends received the guidance of the late MS Iyer, a seasoned consultant renowned for leading several SHP projects in Kerala.
Iyer, in his survey, observed the 323.7-meter elevation variance between the dam and powerhouse and regular rainfall for almost 7 months in the location. He proposed a potential power generation capacity of 3-4 megawatts.
However, the team was sceptical as their initial plan was to generate only one megawatt of power. "So we submitted a one-megawatt project plan to the government. In December 2015, we formed a private limited company. Since it is the first self-identified project, there is no precedent for the government. Hence, they too took time to understand its nature.”
The then Minister for Electricity, MM Mani, contesting from a constituency in Idukki, called Rakesh and his friends for a meeting. “He understood our vision and pushed this project forward. It was subsequently presented in the cabinet. After almost two years, we got the sanction to generate a one-megawatt power supply," Rakesh adds.
In 2016, the company began the river gauging process. In 2019, when the civil construction of the dam and powerhouse commenced, they also got a three-year daily flow data: 2016 was marked as a drought, 2017 as a normal monsoon, and 2018 as a flood year.
Experts analysing this data unanimously confirmed a 4-megawatt power generation potential. After submitting a revised project report to the government in 2020, permission was granted in February 2021 to produce the projected 4 megawatts.
"In the initial stages, we aimed for a one-megawatt setup with a Rs 10 crore investment plan: 3 crores in equity and 7 crores through a loan.”
The plans to scale up to 4 megawatts increased project costs to Rs 30-31 crore.
“So we restructured our financing strategy and decided to arrange Rs10 crore in from friends and family and the remaining 20 crore via a loan,” Rakesh says.
“Despite KSEB agreeing to buy power from us, our limited financial backing and lack of experience posed hurdles in securing institutional loans in Kerala," he says, adding they then approached some institutions in Delhi for the same.
Showcasing the progress in civil construction with personal finances, they secured 50 percent of the fund from the Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency (Rs 14 crore) and Rs 5 crore from IFCI Venture Capital Fund Ltd. The loan dispersal began in March 2022. "These funds were essential for laying the pipelines. Once we received the money, we expedited the work and completed the project," Rakesh says.
The company has opted for a simple and traditional process for sustainable hydropower generation. Rakesh says the Parathodu stream exhibits an elevation drop of 323.7 meters, creating a significant potential energy differential between the dam and the powerhouse.
By channelling the water flow to the turbine, it initiates a motion. This turbine is coupled with a generator, where the energy is converted into electrical power. The process involves the diversion of water flow to harness hydroelectric energy efficiently.
"We operate on a run-of-the-river system without having a storage scheme. Utilising a diversion weir, our approach is environmentally friendly, avoiding any significant destruction or extensive submergence of land,” Rakesh explains.
“As power generation spans eight months, from June to January, mostly coinciding with the monsoon season, we divert water that would otherwise flow wastefully into smaller creeks, through the weir and subsequently, release it back into the same river," he says, adding that they ensure a minimum flow in the hillstream to preserve ecological balance.
Production and revenue model
While the power generation began in October this year, the company has supplied over 1.25 million units to KSEB. Although the tariff scheme is not fully regulated yet, KSEB is expected to pay an interim tariff of Rs 4 to Rs 5 per unit. "We expect an annual production of approximately 11.09 million units, with an anticipated annual revenue of around Rs 5 crore," Rakesh shares.
Securing Kerala's energy future
Currently, Kerala generates only about 30 percent of its power and imports the remaining central generating stations and private power stations. As of April 2022, daily electricity consumption in Kerala stood at 110 million units, projected to double by 2030.
"Hence, it's crucial to boost domestic generation to mitigate the impact of outer market fluctuations on our energy supply,” Rakesh says.
With abundant private lands, six months of rainfall, 44 rivers and many small streams, there is a huge potential for SHPs in Kerala.
“Now there is a precedence. Many people are contacting me to know about the potential," he shares.
Expanding the number of SHPs can relieve the burden on major dams, allowing them to focus on water conservation during the summer months. “Despite a 10 percent evaporation rate, the remaining 90 percent serves as a valuable water resource. This approach offers a potential solution for KSEB's water scarcity issues during the summer season," Rakesh observes, adding such SHPs pave the way for economic upliftment through increased job opportunities.
"I urge the youngsters who are opting for overseas opportunities to consider innovation in our homeland. I hope that whoever reads this, upon encountering a stream or waterfall, envisions harnessing its potential and embarks on SHPs," Rakesh signs off.
(Chandhini R is a Kerala-based journalist specialising in human interest, entertainment, and art and culture stories)