There are two chief reasons I wanted to write this perspective on Solar Power in Bhutan and the example of Shingkhar Solar Park that was recently covered in various media- social to the mainstream.
One, it looks like many fellow Bhutanese are of the opinion that solar parks are only applicable for Desserts, best on rooftop and that we have abundant reliable hydropower forever! Following are few key benefits of mega solar power parks;
In recent years we have seen how long it takes for gigantic hydropower plants of Punatsangchhu and Kholonghhu to take to materialize, how risky they are with one machine breaking down at Mangdechhu costing 203 millions for repair. Think of a 30MW solar park! Within minimum moving part, there is a very low probability of any major breakdown and the plant will easily power the central districts of Bhutan at ease. The presence of existing hydropower projects would help balance the load at night and off-hours. Most importantly, Solar projects can be developed within a shorter span of time.
The global costs of energy production from solar are decreasing and becoming highly competitive even compared to hydropower projects. The per-unit costs of energy will be cheaper or the same as hydropower.
Study, development, operation and maintenance of smaller renewable systems such as this solar park would also require more manpower spread in different districts which would employ more job seekers. Talk about employment generation in Bhutan!
An increase in domestic industries, Electric Vehicles, Internet of Things, digital services etc is pushing power demand which is necessitating the need for Bhutan to increase its power supply. If we don’t put in projects like this fast, Bhutan will face winter energy shortage soon as rivers run dry during the lean months, while our energy demand surges.
Clean energy from renewable sources such as solar would also help Bhutan to stay on top of our Climate pledge to remain carbon neutral besides contributing towards diversification of energy resources for enhancing our energy security.
It would even be possible for us to earn both from sale of electricity and carbon credits by offsetting coal-based power generation in India through carbon trading. Please note that hydropower sale to India was the only sector unaffected by Covid-19 Pandemic.
Abundance of renewable energy in rural areas, then becoming generators, would also encourage in development of secondary production such as hydrogen fuels, green ammonia in Bhutan which are currently untapped. Availability of reliable and sustainable energy in rural communities will trigger more economic activities in & around such communities thereby curtailing rural-urban migration.
No, not just in deserts, Solar parks are equally good in the high altitude countries such as Bhutan and we are indeed blessed to have good solar resources.
More than anything, Solar panels are not ugly, not harmful to the environment, not noisy, and definitely not as toxic compared to our diesel-burning or other sources of energy. There is no other greater source of energy than solar!
Various government and international reviewed studies have listed it as one of the best sites in the country- good solar irradiance, no forest coverage, not in a park and on State land. As a government-initiated project, it is our view that such a noble and breakthrough project needs the support of all Bhutanese. I am sure that we cannot deny that there are villages and Nyes (socio-culturally important sites) in the vicinity. In that case, name a village in Bhutan that does not have Nye or Lhakhang? All villages from Phuentsholing to Laya to Bumthang have a Nye or Chorten or Dzong or Crematorium in the neighbourhood. 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 (such as road or power for the particular village only). This is a true application of “Not in my backyard.”
While the sentiments of the people of Shingkhar are understandable, someone blaming a “Solar park” for socio-cultural and environmental damage is unwarranted! There is no greener form of energy generation than solar and no tourist will run away from a solar park! It is rather a sign of green development, environmental conservation and a great climate change mitigation measure! It is something to be proud of and be economically self-reliant!
Families in Thimphu Chang lost private land for offices in Thimphu, or the development enclave in Hejo- they justified and fought, but they accepted that the plans are for national good! Studies have been done with millions of ngultrums and should not be shelved for the mere complaint of few individuals and their perceived socio-cultural values. If the MoEA does give 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 government land. Let us think of all the sacrifices our fellow countrymen and women had done for decades for the national development and not say “not in my backyard.”