Tshering Palden 

The 30-megawatt solar plant at Shingkhar in Bumthang has been deferred indefinitely raising questions about the government’s seriousness to pursue the country’s ambitious alternate renewable energy aspirations.

Economic affairs ministry officials said that they were instructed to keep the project in abeyance.

The community submitted two letters requesting the government to cancel the project which they said would jeopardise their pastureland and livelihoods as they depend largely on their livestock. The letters came after numerous consultations and presentations by the project and public officials.

In an attempt to convince the community, Economic Affairs Minister Loknath Sharma visited Shingkhar village in August this year. The issue was tabled at a Cabinet meeting.

Lyonpo Loknath Sharma said that it was sad that Shingkhar community could not cooperate well. “But I am sure they will one day understand why I made an attempt to convince them. I’d not right away comment on their hesitance, but for now we will not pursue Shingkhar solar project as a priority.”

With the rapid advancement in research and development in technology, the cost of equipment and construction of solar power projects is becoming cheaper every year. 

First mega solar power project

The project was to lay 80,000 panels in Shingkhar worth about Nu 2 billion occupying 114 acres out of the 800-acres available. It was expected to generate 46.19M units of energy annually with an annual revenue generation of Nu 233.725M.    

The panels would be raised only two feet from the ground and pose no threats whether the environment or any other aspects, an solar power expert said. “There’ll be no high rise tower or any radiation. Nothing harmful at all.”

The project would produce 10 times the energy required by Bumthang. The solar project could have been the solution to dzongkhag’s problems of erratic power supply, mainly in winter.

Sources said that the project has become critical with the rising demand for power every year. The country’s daily domestic electricity requirement is estimated to cross 1,000MW in just about a year. Even when Punatsangchhu I and II are commissioned, power generation during the lean season will be only 600 megawatts. “So, the deficit will still be there. That’s why we are focusing on solar as an alternative energy source.”

Kangsumthang in Shingkhar was best suited to trap the solar energy. With lower mountains, the panels would remain maximum time in sunlight. “Unlike mega hydropower projects, the project did not involve tunnelling, road construction or blasting works.”

However, the plan to set up the solar power plant was stopped after 33 out of 39 households in Shingkhar objected to the project. The project officials promised to blacktop the community farm road, install solar water heating facilities in community halls, fix street lamps in the village, and provide jobs to the locals in the project.

According to Shingkhar tshogpa, Sangay Bidha, of the 39 households, except for two households, all rear a minimum of 10 cattle. Four households have more than 20 cattle.

Ura Gup said that a recent survey showed around 700 cattle in the chiwog. “The officials came numerous times with presentations and explanations on how the project would not affect the sacred places or have no adverse impact on the community,” he said. 

They also made numerous pledges to help with a better breed of cattle and develop fodder for the livestock, the gup said.

But the community was worried about the pastureland and the sanctity of their holy sites.

Concerns of locals

The locals said they were aware that their decision would impact the national aspirations. “We know that, but we have no other options. Our livelihood depends on that patch of pastureland,” a villager said.

For the same reasons, the villagers said they also objected to the previous government’s plan to build a golf course in the area.

The solar project would occupy less than 15 percent of the available 800-acre pastureland in the area.

The area that the project would occupy is the only proper area for grazing villagers said. There were frequent incidents of cattle being stuck in the marshy part of the pastureland and died. “We have lost many cattle to those parts of the pastureland,” a villager said. 

The pastureland is also a grazing area for more than 100 yaks and about 60 horses released in the area by the tshethar tshogpa. “Where would these animals go,” said another. “Members of the tshethar tshogpa tend to them and feed them salt occasionally.”

The tshogpa’s headquarters in Thimphu sends annual payments which are used to feed salt to the animals and for the community’s bumdeys (rituals), a villager told Kuensel. 

While there is no concrete evidence, officials and some local leaders suspect that the villagers were influenced to voice against granting the clearance. The village tshogpa submitted a letter to the gewog administration stating three concerns of the villagers. “While it was the tshogpa’s handwriting, it was evident the vocabulary and the points were not,” a source said.

Some educated individuals from Shingkhar working and living in the capital are alleged of influencing the decision of the villagers. A villager said they have heard about the allegation. 

“While they may be living elsewhere, but this is their ancestral home and they are bound to return. So we understand they speak out of concern for the community,” she said. “Anyway, we have been against the idea of the solar project since the start.”

The issue generated some debate with people arguing for and against the project.

A prominent scholar on culture and Buddhism stated: “I can vouch that Shingkhar remains as one of the few beautiful valleys in Bhutan with serene and sacred landscape not marred by chaotic development. I dread to think how 80,000 solar panels covering an area equivalent to some 70 football fields would disfigure Shingkhar’s landscape of green meadows, holy sites and an idyllic village.”

However, some raised questions as to the bad precedent that the government was setting with the decision to defer the project.

“Imagine if the people of Paro Chang did not sacrifice their ancestral land for the Paro airport! Or people of Mangde for Mangdechhu or Wangdue for Punatsangchhu! We cannot have any government-initiated project for a national cause unless it is for the particular village,” a private consultant said.

“Studies have been done with millions of ngultrums. If the MoEA gives up this project after coming this far, tomorrow we will not be able to build any hydropower plant or industrial park or even BHUs even on State land,” he said.

A big setback for DNT?

Some said the government gave in too easily to the community’s demands. An observer said that if the government went ahead with the project and completed it before its term ended, the Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa would have gained so much mileage. 

“This was the first mega alternative renewable energy project and DNT will go down the history as a party that built the country’s largest solar power plant,” the source said.

However, Lyonpo Loknath Sharma said that if the community who are the nearest stakeholder are not very comfortable why to push ahead.

“There will be tangible output to show even if we don’t have Shingkhar,” he said, adding that it was too early to comment as a big setback.

Lyonpo Loknath Sharma said that it doesn’t set a bad precedent. “Just now we are prioritising Sephu over Shingkhar project. Government drive for alternate renewal projects and in particular solar will not be dampened as we are already looking for more sites. This is a drive we must continue.”

Some in the power sector say that it is only a matter of time before the project comes to the fore simply because feasibility studies have shown that the place is the best in the country for a mega solar power project.

A senior Gross National Happiness Commission (GNHC) official said that community clearance for such projects is critical. 

“If the community cannot provide the clearance for some strong reasons then we have to forego it,” the official said. “And if other similar sites are not viable, then we would not pursue it.”

The official said that a community in Wangdue that did not give clearance for a road construction project came to request for a farm road. 

“By then the budget had been used elsewhere and they didn’t the road,” the senior GNHC official said.

Meanwhile, the MoEA has availed community clearance for a 17mega watt site in Seyphu, Wangdue. Once complete, the plant is expected to generate 26.15 million (M) units of electricity, earning annual revenue of Nu 132.29 million at the domestic tariff rate of Nu 5.06 a unit. 

The plant has the capacity to reduce 24,495.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions if the energy is exported.