Hydropower – Quo Vadis?

September 28 | Kuensel
Contributed by Dorji Pavo Phuntshok

Where are we going, Hydropower? About two decades ago, Bhutanese firms constructed the Additional Tail Race Tunnel (ATRT) of Chhukha Hydropower Project (CHP) and the Head Race Tunnel (HRT) of Basochhu Upper Stage Hydropower Project (BHP US). Forget about skills and experiences being carried forward; regrettably, these achievements have even escaped our memory! I fear, we are heading for the same consequences in the hydropower sector.

Skills and experience gained by large numbers of Bhutanese professionals in construction of hydropower projects, largely underground structures is at real risk of being similarly lost. Further, investment made by CDCL in underground construction, both in equipment and human resources, may also go in vain.

Largely because of the experience of the problems at Puna-1 and Puna-2 projects not being managed appropriately, we have succeeded in shooting ourselves in the foot. For those in the know, the challenges at these projects are fortunately project specific and not hydropower generic. Sadly, despite this knowledge, we seem to have developed cold feet in addressing the root causes.

Loss would be larger than simply on hydropower. Challenged by very limited flat land, it’s only a matter of time before Bhutan has to use its underground space for many of its space requirements. Way we have now chosen to proceed, particularly in not undertaking mid-size hydropower projects, we will not have the skills and experience when we need them, much like the private sector experience in ATRT and HRT of CHP and BHP US. Hydropower – Quo Vadis?

Quietly, under the radar, after some initial hiccups, the 118 MW Nikachhu Project is making headway under full Bhutanese management: with even design review, a progress on Dagachhu Project, now managed by Bhutanese. We need to balance our shortcomings against successes, no matter how imbalanced the two may appear.

Regular investment in hydropower projects, just enough to sustain our skills and experiences is essential. The size of our domestic energy needs can now accommodate mid-size projects up to the scope of Dagachhu and Nikachhu, with enough underground works. The country can also afford to fund about Nu. 10 billion over a period of 5-6 years in a mid-size project. Covering even for inflation would be better to serve future generations for more than 50 years with steady supply of energy and revenue, than simply spending this amount by the treasury. Tariff of the MHP is now the benchmark and if we can build a project for domestic consumption and displace equivalent MPH energy to India by considering such displacement as benefits accrued by the project would not only provide steady stream of energy and revenue, but also retain our skills and experience in construction of hydropower projects. All our current PPAs provide the flexibility of exporting all surplus energy from GoI assisted projects.

In the end, the fundamental question we Bhutanese need to ask ourselves is – what are our common, reasonable aspirations? How much would these cost? Where do we get the funds to meet these costs? Having dedicated my whole career to hydropower, I would rejoice if we can find other means of equivalent magnitude and risks as hydropower for our common welfare. Until then, I submit, we need to continue making investments in hydropower. Further, Bhutan needs to start using its underground space to save our limited useable surface land for more meaningful purposes. It’s worth saving the skills and experience, even at cost, which have taken years to develop, in hydropower construction – particularly underground.

Quo Vadis Hydropower?

Disclaimer: The opinions are entirely personal to the author and does not in any way reflect the position of the organization he serves.

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