Choki Wangmo 

During the nationwide lockdown last month, a power outage in central and western parts of the country lasted for about an hour. While both 220KV at Chukha and Basochhu were restored, some said it came as a warning for being too dependent on hydropower.

Unlike hydropower systems, other forms of renewable energy like solar, wind, bio-energy, and small hydro have decentralised systems which are less complex and more reliable. A breakdown in one grid doesn’t affect the entire network, avoiding a systematic power outage, said the director of renewable energy department, Phuntsho Namgyel.

Considering threats to the hydropower sector from climate change impacts and other associated issues in hydropower development, he said harnessing energy from other renewable sources would enhance energy security of the nation.  “Domestic demand for electricity can be met from other renewable energy sources while hydropower electricity can be primarily targeted for export. Thus, energy security would be ensured to a larger extent.”

Diversification of energy can also complement hydropower plants in making electricity available during the lean winter season when hydropower generation is minimum, he added.

The renewables readiness assessment for Bhutan 2019 conducted by the International Renewable Energy Agency, also recommended diversified energy system in the country that constitutes several renewable energy technologies that can be more resilient to the impacts of climate change. “Bhutan’s dependency on hydropower to meet its electricity demand could make the country vulnerable to long-term climate change impacts, thereby raising energy security concerns.”

Although about 30 percent of the country’s energy consumption today is met through electricity, mainly hydropower plants, the current plants are run-of-river, with no water storage, therefore reduction in output during lean season.

Annually Bhutan earned Nu 10.5B from the export of electricity from which only Nu 1.283B of the revenue remained after deducting the cost of import of electricity and fossil fuel, including LPG.

Diversification, Phuntsho Namgyel said, could enhance energy sales by displacing power from hydropower plants, augmenting the country’s revenue from electricity. “Solar and bio-energy can be used for heating systems, and other domestic use if harnessed effectively.”

As per the Renewable Energy Management Master Plan, Bhutan could produce 12 gigawatts of solar and 760 megawatts (MW) of wind energy in technical terms. Yet the country’s current installed capacity for renewables, apart from large hydro plants, only amounts to 9MW.

Bhutan has a potential of 12,000MW of solar energy but only 170KW are installed for home lighting systems, 761MW of wind energy out of which 600KW are installed. Similarly, out of 2,680MW bio-energy capacity, 6,000 number of domestic biogas plants were installed. Only 8MW of the total 23,292MW capacity for small hydro is used.

The transition to renewable energy, however, is not without challenges. Lack of or appropriate incentives for harnessing alternative renewable energy sources, poor eco-system for green and renewable technology, lack of experts, and lack regulatory and policy frameworks among others have impeded the diversification goals, he said.

Currently, Bhutan is 99.97 percent electrified. Due to rugged topography and hindrance in obtaining environmental access rights, Lunana and communities around Ajay Nye are yet to be connected to grid electricity.

As of now, renewable energy has developed and piloted renewable energy technologies such as solar, wind, biogas and small hydro power but in the future the department plans to enhance value of the per unit energy by deploying energy efficiency initiatives in net energy savings, freeing more electricity for export.

Phuntsho Namgyel said that with renewable energy technologies getting cheaper each year, it was critical for Bhutan to diversify the energy mix by harnessing the energy from alternative renewables and its benefits. “Solid waste related issues are on the rise in our country. It may be prudent to assess and explore opportunities to turn waste into energy in the form of biogas or electricity.”

The Bhutan Ecological Society and renewable energy department last month signed a memorandum of understanding to implement renewable energy projects in the communities where grid electricity is infeasible.

In the next nine months, there would be 180-KW solar power plant along with the 600KW wind farm at Rubesa in Wangdue.