Has Shingkhar held the country’s mega solar project hostage?
The 30-megawatt Shingkhar solar power plant in Bumthang has been postponed indefinitely, raising questions about the government’s seriousness in pursuing the country’s ambitious aspirations for alternative renewable energies.
Officials from the Ministry of Economic Affairs said they were ordered to keep the project on hold.
The community submitted two letters asking the government to cancel the project which it said would jeopardize their pastures and livelihoods, as they largely depend on their livestock. The letters came after many consultations and presentations by the project and public officials.
In an attempt to convince the community, Economic Affairs Minister Loknath Sharma visited the village of Shingkhar in August this year. The question was tabled at a cabinet meeting.
Lyonpo Loknath Sharma said it is sad that the Shingkhar community cannot cooperate well. “But I’m sure they will one day understand why I tried to convince them. I wouldn’t comment on their reluctance right away, but for now, we won’t be pursuing the Shingkhar solar project as a priority.
With the rapid advancement of research and technological development, the cost of equipping and constructing solar power projects is getting cheaper every year.
First solar energy mega project
The project consisted of installing 80,000 panels in Shingkhar worth around 2 billion Nu occupying 114 acres of the 800 acres available. It was to generate 46.19 million units of energy per year with an annual turnover of 233.725 million Nu.
The panels would be raised just two feet off the ground and pose no threat to the environment or anything else, a solar energy expert said. “There will be no high rise tower or radiation. Nothing dangerous at all. “
The project would produce 10 times the energy required by Bumthang. The solar project could have been the solution to dzongkhag’s erratic power supply problems, mainly in winter.
Sources said the project has become critical with the increasing demand for electricity every year. It is estimated that the country’s daily electricity needs will exceed 1,000 MW in just one year. Even when Punatsangchhu I and II are put into operation, electricity production during the lean season will only be 600 megawatts. “So the deficit will always be there. That is why we are focusing on solar as an alternative energy source.
Kangsumthang in Shingkhar was best suited for trapping solar energy. With lower mountains, the panels would stay in the sunlight as much as possible. “Unlike the hydroelectric megaprojects, the project did not involve tunneling, road construction or blasting. “
However, the plan to set up the solar power plant was halted after 33 out of 39 households in Shingkhar opposed the project. Project officials promised to cover the community agricultural road, install solar water heating systems in community halls, repair village street lights and provide jobs for project residents.
According to Shingkhar tshogpa, Sangay Bidha, out of the 39 households, except for two households, all keep a minimum of 10 head of cattle. Four households own more than 20 head of cattle.
Ura Gup said a recent survey showed around 700 cattle in the chiwog. “Officials have repeatedly come with presentations and explanations on how the project would not affect sacred places or have any negative impact on the community,” he said.
They also made many commitments to help a better breed of cattle and develop fodder for the cattle, the gup said.
But the community worried about the pastures and the sanctity of their holy places.
Concerns of residents
Residents said they were aware their decision would impact national aspirations. “We know that, but we have no other options. Our livelihood depends on this piece of pasture, ”said one villager.
For the same reasons, the villagers said they also opposed the previous government’s plan to build a golf course in the area.
The solar project would occupy less than 15 percent of the 800 acres of pasture available in the region.
The area that the project would occupy is the only area suitable for grazing villagers. There have been frequent incidents of cattle getting stuck in the swampy part of the pasture and dead. “We have lost a lot of cattle in these parts of the pastures,” said one villager.
The pasture is also a grazing area for over 100 yaks and about 60 horses released into the area by the tshethar tshogpa. “Where would these animals go,” said another. “The members of the tshethar tshogpa take care of them and feed them salt from time to time.”
The tshogpa headquarters in Thimphu sends out annual payments which are used to feed the animals with salt and for the community’s bumbeys (rituals), a villager said in Kuensel.
Although there is no concrete evidence, officials and some local leaders suspect that the villagers were influenced to oppose the granting of the permit. The village tshogpa submitted a letter to the gewog administration outlining three villagers’ concerns. “Although this is the writing of the tshogpa, it was obvious that the vocabulary and the points were not,” a source said.
Some educated people from Shingkhar working and living in the capital are said to have influenced the villagers’ decision. A villager said he heard about the allegation.
“Although they may live elsewhere, but this is their ancestral home and they are compelled to come back. So we understand that they are speaking for the sake of the community, ”she said. “Either way, we’ve been against the idea of the solar project from the start.”
The issue has sparked some debate with people arguing for and against the project.
A prominent scholar of culture and Buddhism said: “I can guarantee that Shingkhar remains one of the few beautiful valleys in Bhutan with a serene and sacred landscape not marred by chaotic development. I fear that 80,000 solar panels covering an area equivalent to some 70 football fields would disfigure Shingkhar’s landscape of lush green meadows, holy places and an idyllic village.
However, some have raised questions about the bad precedent the government was setting with the decision to postpone the project.
“Imagine if the people of Paro Chang didn’t sacrifice their ancestral land for Paro Airport! Or the people of Mangde for Mangdechhu or Wangdue for Punatsangchhu! We cannot have a project initiated by the government for a national cause unless it is for the village in particular, ”said a private consultant.
“Studies have been done with millions of ngultrums. If the MoEA gives up on this project after getting this far, tomorrow we will not be able to build a hydroelectric power station or an industrial park or even BHUs, even on state land, ”he said.
A big setback for DNT?
Some have said that the government gave in too easily to community demands. One observer said that if the government went ahead with the project and completed it before the end of his term, Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa would have gained so many kilometers.
“It was the first mega-project of alternative renewable energy and DNT will go down in history as the party that built the largest solar power plant in the country,” said the source.
However, Lyonpo Loknath Sharma said that if the community that is the closest stakeholder is not very comfortable, why go ahead.
“There will be a tangible exit to show even if we don’t have Shingkhar,” he said, adding that it was too early to comment as a big setback.
Lyonpo Loknath Sharma said it does not set a bad precedent. “Right now, we are prioritizing Sephu in the Shingkhar project. The government’s campaign for an alternative renewal project and in particular solar energy will not be slowed down as we are already looking for more sites. It is a momentum that we must continue. “
Some in the power sector say it is only a matter of time before the project comes to fruition simply because feasibility studies have shown that the location is the best in the country for a mega project. ‘solar energy.
A senior official with the Gross National Happiness Commission (GNHC) said community authorization for such projects is essential.
“If the community cannot provide the authorization for serious reasons, we must give it up,” the official said. “And if other similar sites are not viable, we would not sue him.”
The official said that a community in Wangdue that had not given permission for a road construction project had come to request an agricultural road.
“At that point, the budget had been used elsewhere and they hadn’t hit the road,” the senior GNHC official said.
Meanwhile, the MoEA obtained community permission for a 17 megawatt site in Seyphu, Wangdue. When completed, the plant is expected to generate 26.15 million (M) units of electricity, generating annual revenues of 132.29 million NU at the national tariff of 5.06 NU per unit.
The plant has the capacity to reduce 24,495.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions if the energy is exported.