Bhutan wind powers on greener future

THIMPHU, Feb 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – From wind power to biogas, bicycles and electric buses, Bhutan is exploring new ways to play its part in the global push to keep climate change in check.

Last month, two wind turbines – the Himalayan mountain kingdom’s first – were inaugurated at Rubesa village in Wangduephodrang district, some 1,450 metres above sea level.

“Windmills are new to Bhutan, and we can easily harness wind (here) given the location of the village,” said Pema Letho, an electrical engineer with Bhutan Power Corporation Limited.

The turbines are expected to generate a combined 600 kilowatts, enough to provide electricity to 300 households in the village, a four-hour drive from the capital Thimphu.

Bhutan’s government is promoting new sources of renewable energy amid increasing demand for electricity.

It is also hoping to reduce its reliance on hydroelectricity – which can lead to power shortages in winter when water levels drop – and import less fossil fuel for transport.

“The plan is to boost energy security in the country and diversify the energy supply,” said Mewang Gyeltshen, acting director of the department of renewable energy.

“This is being done to counter the impending threats of climate change,” he said.

If the Rubesa project is a success, the department plans to install 24 more wind farms to make up for power shortages during the dry season, when hydro output drops to less than a fifth of capacity and electricity has to be imported from India.

The renewable energy department is also looking at installing solar panels that would generate 1 megawatt (MW) of electricity, and plans to supply 13,500 solar cook stoves and 2,800 home biogas digesters in 20 districts by the end of 2016.

Mini hydropower plants with a potential to produce 33,000 MW of electricity are also in the pipeline.

BIKE-FRIENDLY CITY

After the U.N. climate change summit in December, where some 195 governments agreed a new deal to tackle global warming based on national pledges, the tiny Himalayan nation has begun to put its own commitments into practice.

Transforming Thimphu into a bicycle-friendly city is one of Bhutan’s objectives to curb planet-warming emissions from transport. The municipal corporation is planning to build dedicated cycle lanes and tracks around the city.

“The government should encourage people to ride bicycles, walk or use public transport, and switch to electric cars to cut down carbon emissions,” said ardent cyclist Lungtok Tshewang Chedup, 23, as he climbed the road to Kuenselphodrang on his Trek 500 mountain bike.

Bike rider and bank worker Pema Gyeltshen said the government should make sure cycling is safe and conduct awareness campaigns for motorists.

“It would be easier then to encourage people to use bicycles to get to work,” he said, urging the authorities to introduce more parking areas for the two-wheelers.

The number of cyclists has increased since the launch of popular races several years ago, such as the international “Tour of the Dragon” organised by the Bhutan Olympic Committee, according to cycle shop owner Ngawang Dorji.

The “Giant” bicycle shop opened around a year ago, and Dorji says he has sold 150 bikes since then.

Motor vehicles are going greener too. Electric cars were introduced two years ago, and four new charging stations were installed this month, funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency, bringing the total to 10.

“GLOBAL SOLUTION”

“Global warming is a global problem that requires a global solution, and shouldn’t be between the rich world versus the poor,” Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay said in a written response to questions from the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The South Asian nation’s leader has been talking to Ashok Leyland, one of India’s biggest manufacturers of commercial vehicles, to test electric buses in Bhutan.

And if Bhutan taps the full potential of its hydroelectric sector, it could export more clean power to its two high-emitting neighbours, economic giants India and China, he said.

According to Bhutan’s environment commission, the tiny country offsets 4.4 million tonnes of carbon emissions annually by exporting hydroelectricity to India.

Bhutan already sells 70 percent of the power it generates to India, while hydro provides 100 percent of electricity in its urban areas and 94 percent in rural zones.

Prime Minister Tobgay said the country is also committed to maintaining forest cover on 60 percent of its land – a goal it is exceeding with cover of more than 70 percent, thanks to regular tree planting.

This and other policies, such as lowering the level of glacial lakes, could help protect vulnerable mountain communities in the landlocked country from climate change impacts, including a higher risk of landslides and flash floods.

FUNDING NEEDED

Bhutan’s 11th Five-Year Plan, a national economic strategy running from 2013 to 2018, has embraced carbon-neutral development. The government also aims to integrate into its 12th Plan the climate action commitments it submitted for the U.N. climate deal, which will come into effect in 2020.

The agriculture ministry, meanwhile, is encouraging farmers, who make up 70 percent of the population, to adopt sustainable land use and improved livestock management, and is promoting organic agriculture.

“There are no doubts about the pledges we have made, and we are working hard,” said agriculture minister Yeshey Dorji, who represented Bhutan at the U.N. climate summit.

But the success of Bhutan’s commitments will largely depend on international financial and technical support to help tackle climate change and keep its progress towards sustainable development on track.

While the amount of funding the country will need is unclear, it is already receiving some assistance.

The Asian Development Bank and the Norwegian government, for example, agreed a $6 million project in 2014 to boost Bhutan’s clean energy development and improve energy efficiency. (Reporting by Saraswati Sundas; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change.

By Saraswati Sundas

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