The land that solar (almost) forgot

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According to International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) figures, energy consumption in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has risen 5.49% per year since 2005. To date, demand has been met by 1.67 GW of hydropower capacity – plus fossil fuel imports – but such reliance on hydro leaves the Buddhist kingdom at the mercy of river systems prone to droughts exacerbated by the climate crisis.

IRENA estimates Bhutan has around 9 MW of non-hydro renewable energy generation capacity, with solar contributing less than 1 MW through scattered mini-grids and other off-grid installations.

The agency estimates Bhutan could host up to 12 GW of solar generation capacity and 760 MW of wind power despite its mountainous topography.

A report into the mountain kingdom produced by the agency highlights an unambitious six-year-old energy policy which envisages only 20 MW of non-hydro renewables capacity by 2025, with just 5 MW of it solar. Despite the small numbers, says IRENA, “rapid investments are needed to reach these levels by the target date”.

Blackouts

The agency is pushing for the policy to be updated in line with reduced solar and wind power costs. Although the nation has near-universal access to electricity, provision can be patchy. In 2017, according to the study, 58% of households surveyed had experienced one or more blackouts of at least an hour’s duration in the previous week.

To compound the problem, around 75% of the electricity generated by Bhutan’s hydropower facilities last year was exported. “With the construction of several projects in progress, and the strengthening of the transmission network, there is more potential for electricity exports,” the IRENA report stated.

Bhutan is believed to have high solar radiation levels although exact figures can be difficult to quantify as the mountainous terrain of the kingdom makes accurate satellite measurements difficult.

The IRENA report makes a string of suggestions for the government of Bhutan, including incentivizing mini-grids, improving its energy regulatory framework, setting clean energy technology targets, mobilizing a Renewable Energy Development Fund and supporting electromobility and renewable power for heating.