Bhutan is bestowed with significant natural resources, amongst which our fast-flowing rivers are true gift on which several hydropower projects have been developed.
Electricity generated from hydropower plants after meeting the industrial and other domestic needs like lighting, cooking and heating etc. is then exported. Income generated from the export of surplus electricity forms the top revenue contribution to the overall GDP of the country.
As per the Trade Statistics 2018, during the past five years (2014-2018), we have exported around 26,000 MU of surplus electricity earning more than Nu. 46,227.00 million, which is being ploughed back for the development of other social sectors.
However, we must note that all our existing hydropower plants are run-of-river projects which cannot store the water and hence the electricity generation dwindles during the lean season. As such the country also imports electricity during lean months to meet the domestic demand.
Over the last five years, we have imported around 600 MU of electricity (Power Databook-2018) which translates to more than Nu. 1,100 million. If we continue with business as usual (relying only on hydropower) for our electricity needs, we may land up consuming most of the productions leaving very less for exports. Such a situation would result to a severe trade deficit.
The five years (2014-2018) average deficit is to the tune of Nu. 29,227.00 million, which would have been worse if export of electricity had declined during this period. Meanwhile, due cognizance of the climate change impacts on the glaciers and water ecosystems must be considered since these are the main sources of water feeding into our rivers on which the hydropower plants are built. In addition, imports of petroleum products (Diesel/Petrol/Aviation fuel/SKO/Lubricant etc.) and Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) are on the rise. As per the records maintained by the NSB; in 2017 alone, we have imported petroleum products amounting to more than Nu. 9,300.00 million which consumed most of the electricity export revenue during the year.
Against this backdrop, it’s important to broaden the energy supply mix by exploring other forms of Renewable Energy (RE) sources (Biogas, Solar PVs, Solar Heating, Wind plants etc.) to supplement hydropower generation shortage during the lean season and complement export of electricity during the monsoons. Broadening country’s energy supply mix is critical for ensuring energy security and minimizing the imminent risks of relying on a single source for our electricity needs. Investments in other alternative RE sources, especially the promotion of utility scale Solar PV and Wind projects could be explored. Venturing into these RE projects are increasingly becoming relevant with the fast-declining costs of these technologies and considering the minimal technical and natural risks associated with the implementation of such projects.
In our case, the need for constructing separate Transmission/distribution lines for evacuation of power from such RE projects may be also few since the power can be directly injected into the existing lines based on the technical adequacy assessment and after sorting out costs sharing mechanisms. Moreover, the implementation duration for such projects are generally shorter thereby avoiding huge costs escalations and Interest During Constructions (IDCs) while the benefits can be accrued much sooner. The Solar PV and Wind projects could be also implemented as an isolated plant to meet electricity needs of a community/village so that the electricity being provided through the national grid can be diverted for enhancing exports. Wider promotion of such technologies in the country will also have positive ripple effects, especially in creating more employment opportunities as manufacturers, suppliers, technicians etc.
On the Policy front, the Alternate Renewable Energy Policy 2013 (AREP 2013) provides clear directions for the promotion and development of such RE projects in the country. However, except for few pilot projects, not a single utility scale RE projects have been implemented in the country as of date. Meanwhile, such projects are being pursued on mass scales in other countries, especially our immediate neighbor India which has implemented and has numerous such projects being planned for implementation, primarily because of its shorter gestation period, comparative supply costs and due to minimal running costs required for such plants. Therefore, it may be time for us to rethink our energy sector so that other forms of RE sources are also explored while the importance attached to development of hydropower projects are not diluted. Such a move may take us closer to achieving a more reliable energy supply that will contribute towards ensuring domestic energy security and for enhancing exports of electricity from our hydropower plants.
(The views in the article are authors personal perspective)