We now have a stronger scientific basis that climate change is the biggest threat to humanity and the planet. The sixth assessment report published in August 2021 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggests that ‘many changes due to past and future greenhouse gas emissions are irreversible for centuries to millennia, especially changes in the ocean, ice sheets and global sea level’.
The Paris Agreement’s target to keep the global average temperature well below 1.5 degree Celsius will be exceeded during the 21st Century itself, unless deep reductions in Green House Gases (GHG). Humans will need to adopt more sustainable consumption and production. Fossil fuel consumption must be reduced urgently as it currently contributes to about 78 percent of global GHG emissions.
Our planet will soon be home to 10 billion people. This growth, coupled with growing energy demand and increasing emissions of greenhouse gases, all point towards a climate emergency. Therefore, accelerating the clean energy transition is imperative in our struggle to survive in this climate crisis.
Over the past decades, Bhutan has ambitiously pursued electrification, especially in rural communities. As a result, the country has achieved a commendable 99.9 percent electrification rate. This has helped shift fuel consumption for cooking, lighting, and heating away from biomass and fossil-based fuels to electricity.
Yet approximately 70 percent of the energy demand in Bhutan continues to be met by fossil fuel and biomass, in large part because the transport sector is so heavily dependent on it. The sources of ‘clean energy’ – the country’s hydropower plants – are exposed to the threats of numerous climate-induced disasters such as glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs). In the face of climate change and the need for enhanced energy security, the business case for Bhutan to diversify its energy sources, especially by tapping into alternative renewable energy, is compelling.
Bhutan is yet to realize its full potential in terms of renewable energy. According to its Renewable Energy Management Master Plan (2016), it is technically feasible to produce 12 gigawatts (GW) of solar and 760 megawatts (MW) of wind energy. However, the country’s current installed capacity for renewables, apart from large hydropower plants, stands at 9MW.
The recently launched 180-Kilowatt (kW) grid-tied ground-mounted solar photo-voltaic plant in Rubesa, Wangduephodrang is, therefore, timely, historic, and catalytic, as an example of a bold investment. The plant co-exists with the first 600kW wind power project, commissioned in 2016. It demonstrates how renewable energy sources can be integrated to reduce the overall cost of energy generation. While alternative renewable energy initiatives on a smaller scale have been around for decades at the subsistence level, the grid-tied solar plant is a first of its kind on a larger scale. It is the beginning of Bhutan’s energy diversification, a humble but important first step towards achieving energy security. This scheme will also contribute significantly to the realization of our commitments to the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7, which calls for the attainment of ‘sustainable, affordable energy for all’ by 2030. Without reliable, affordable, and equitable access to clean and safe energy, all other SDGs will remain at risk. For instance, energy is strongly interlinked with the progress on poverty eradication, gender equality, food security, health, education, clean water and sanitation, jobs, innovation, transport, just to name a few.
The Rubesa solar power plant, implemented by the Royal Government, Bhutan Power Corporation and UNDP, with funding from the Government of Japan, is expected to generate about 263,000 units of energy every year, adequate for supplying electricity to around 80-90 households. The statistics presented here may seem insignificant, but it has exponential benefits. Besides complementing the country’s vast hydropower resources, leading to enhanced national energy security, this project is helping to create green jobs and enhance skills of national experts in the solar energy space.
UNDP sees renewable energy solutions as a lifeline to save our planet and humanity. It must be an integral part of every nation’s green recovery effort from the Covid-19 pandemic. The recently held UN-led High-level dialogue on energy is a clear reflection of the growing realization that we must use the pandemic as an opportunity to build back better and greener. During the dialogue, 150 energy compacts were pledged by governments, companies, civil society, and international organizations, mobilizing USD 400 billion in new investments for renewable energy, clean cooking, and energy efficiency. Bhutan is soon to submit its own energy compact.
For Bhutan to fully realize its renewable energy potential, it must have enabling policies that are forward thinking, encourage innovation, and provide fiscal and non-fiscal incentives for investing in renewable energy. Energy efficiency must also be greatly improved.
The good news is that the cost of solar technology has drastically reduced in the recent past. This should encourage private sector investors to become independent power producers. It is also critical to build the required national capacity to offer installation, maintenance and research/development services in the solar sector, and to promote so called ‘prosumers’ so that an individual household can both produce and consume electricity by installing rooftop solar photovoltaic (PV). The Vehicle to Grid (V2G) model can be explored as car batteries offer considerable storage capacity. This is apt since Bhutan is already advancing on its effort towards greening the transport sector. All of this must be accompanied by rigorous systems for social and environmental safeguards so that our energy transition will not be hampered by other unforeseen challenges and pressures placed upon our communities and ecosystems.
The UNDP Administrator, Achim Steiner, during the recent High-Level Dialogue on Energy said, “We are on the cusp of a historic tipping point: a clean energy revolution that will change how we power our economies and societies and improve the lives of billions of people”. Riding on the wave of this global trend, it is time for us here in Bhutan to further step up our investments in renewable energy.
Contributed by Azusa Kubota