Bhutan ramps up its solar ambitions

In the next two years, Bhutan plans to harness 300 megawatts of solar energy, Minister for Economic Affairs Lokhnath Sharma has told The Third Pole. Currently, the country’s installed renewables capacity (excluding hydropower) is about 9 MW.

The government has identified seven sites across the country to install solar farms, at a cost of around 21.6 billion Bhutanese ngultrum (about USD 300 million). It hopes that the Asian Development Bank (ADB) will provide funding and technical support, and is exploring funding with the World Bank and European Investment Bank, Sharma said.

The first project due to be constructed is a 17.38 MW solar plant in Wangduephodrang district, the funding of which is being supported by the Asian Development Bank. Sharma said the ADB has instructed the ministry to choose the three best sites to begin installing solar farms. “We are currently doing that and if we excel, they will fund the remaining four sites too.”

The Himalayan country currently depends on hydropower for nearly all its electricity generation. In winter when water levels in reservoirs drop, supply cannot meet demand: last year the country required about 450 MW but generation dipped to about 400 MW, Chhewang Rinzin, managing director of the Druk Green Power Corporation Limited, told this correspondent in an earlier interview.

With several new power-intensive and IT industries proposed to be established, Bhutan’s domestic demand for energy is projected to more than double in the next two years, and its winter energy deficit will worsen, officials at the Department of Industry told The Third Pole. With hydropower unable to fill the gap, in recent years Bhutan has been looking to diversify its energy sources. I believe that electricity generated by hydro energy is still more efficient, cheaper and cleaner than harnessing the energy from the sun. Yeshey Dorji, environmental activist, Rangjung CS Trashigang Solar energy has become competitive Solar power is seen as a quick way to meet the growing demand for electricity. The government plans to complete the country’s first large solar plant, the 17 MW project in Sephu, Wangduephodrang, within 18 months from when it starts construction later this year. Phuntsho Namgyel, director of the Department of Renewable Energy (DRE), said that solar plants can be commissioned and constructed within a short period of time – especially compared with the years or even decades it can take to develop hydropower. Improvements in the technology also mean it is now cheaper and more reliable. “Today solar energy has reached grid parity with hydropower, meaning the per-unit cost of electricity is almost equal to that of hydro,” Namgyel said. The DRE estimates that the price of electricity from the Sephu plant will be around BTN 3 a unit. This is lower than the price it charges to export electricity to India from the 720 MW Mangdechhu hydroelectric project, which is BTN 4.2 a unit. Globally, the cost of developing solar energy has decreased significantly in the past decade. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the price of solar panels has dropped by almost 90 per cent since 2009.