Energy and the Earth

Energy and the Earth

The will of government is key to energy access…

The Bropkas meet the grid

In what must surely be a first for the Conversation, I am writing this post from the village of Sakteng in remote eastern Bhutan. That I can do so is a remarkable testimony to the will of the Bhutanese government in the electrification of what has to be one of the most difficult countries in the World to electrify.

Sakteng is one of Bhutan’s two main Bropka settlements, with a population of several thousand. To get to Sakteng we walked from the neighbouring Merak, the other main Bropka settlement. It took us 8-hours trekking over the Nakchung pass at 4,100 m, though the locals take only half that time. From Sakteng to the road head is another 2 hours walk.

The Bropkas are yak herders that originate from Tibet, and inhabit the high mountains along the north eastern border of Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh in neighbouring India. In most ways Bropka life still seems very traditional, governed by the seasonal movement of their yak herds up and down the precipitous Himalayan mountains slopes. Traditional dress is the order of the day with men in their dear skin jackets and woman adorned by their astonishing yak fur hats. But lives in these remote villages have changed in very real and tangible ways.

Bropka women from the village of Merak in eastern Bhutan, with their distinctive yak-fur hats.

Despite the road only just now reaching Merak, and not planned to get to Sakteng for a few years yet, both villages are on the grid, and have been for almost 10 years. Mobile telephony arrived soon after electricity.

And this has been the order for much of Bhutan’s remote rural communities, with some 95% of the population now connected to the grid.

A nation defined by steepness

Like few other countries, Bhutan is defined by steepness.

As anyone who has flown into the only international airport at Paro understands, precipitous slopes rise alarmingly even in the flattest parts of the country. Everywhere, the densely forested slopes are covered with landslide debris - primed for further collapse given the slightest nudge. I doubt that there is any country with a greater steepness index. One of the Himalaya’s most iconic images, the Taktshang monastery, testifies to the way the Bhutanese so readily accommodate this steepness in their daily life.

The Taktshang (Tiger’s Nest) Monastry, Bhutan.

By comparison with other segments of the Himalaya, the Bhutanese frontal ranges bordering the Indian plains of Assam and West Bengal are unusually steep. The steepness has afforded a natural defence that has helped isolate this remote kingdom for generations. The traditional Bhutanese strongholds lie in regions of comparatively low relief at 1500-3000 metres elevation, between the steep frontal ranges and the towering peaks of the high Himalayan along its northern border with Tibet. In more recent times this very steepness has created political distress of its own kind, as once welcome Nepali settlers of the southern borderlands were evicted resulting in some 200,000 refugees.

But its topographic steepness comes with another penalty - the steep cost of moving things around.

On this trip we started our geological work in the south east corner of the country near the outpost of Daifam. By the way the crow flies it is just 250 kms from the nation’s capital Thimphu.

You can’t get to Daifam from Thimphu without leaving Bhutan and traversing through Assam. The quickest route is via the border town of Phuntsholing, 5 hours from Thimphu, and then another 9 hours via Assam. Alternatively you can take Bhutan’s main “highway” east from Thimphu to Trashigang (20 hours), down to Samdrup Jongkhar (5 hours) and across Assam (5 hours). Crows would appear to have it easy in Bhutan.

Some of the most isolated villages in Bhutan occur in the mountains to the north of Daifam. They are also mostly connected to the grid. To connect these villages required carrying in all the poles and wires, often up to a day’s walk up steep slopes through thick forest. Remote rural houses are provided with 100 units of electricity free, but do not go close to consuming that.

In the Bangtar district, on the southern border between Daifam and Samdrup Jongkhar, we met the electrical engineer helping build the transmission line that will send power from a hydro plant near Mongar in the north down to Assam in India. He explained it in some places it will take 2-days by foot to carry the material for the poles and wires from the road head to the proposed transmission route. All of Bhutan’s grid supplied electricity is sourced from hydro, and exports already greatly exceed domestic consumption.

The question of coal

Back in Australia, our coal lobby is fond of quotes of the ilk … “_Only when Third World children can do homework at night using cheap coal-fired electricity can they escape from poverty” .

And at least some in our government seem of a like mind.

Why, might we ask, does it matter that it is just “cheap coal-fired” electricity that alone will alleviate poverty? Why does not cheap hydro, geothermal, nuclear or whatever else, also do the trick?

No doubt coal has been a useful source of electricity in the third world, and will likely remain so for some time given that not all countries are endowed with the hydro resources of the Bhutanese. But is clear that Bhutan puts paid to the idea that coal alone can alleviate poverty.

But Bhutan also shows that there is something more fundamental that our coal lobby is loathe to acknowledge, and it speaks to the very paradox that lies at the heart of their claim - given that cheap coal has been around powering electricity systems for over 150 years, why are any children still living in poverty?

Could it be that the purported saviour of the world’s poor - the coal industry - doesn’t really have such a flash track record in the altruism stakes after all?

Bhutan shows that it is not really coal or any other source of energy that is the missing ingredient in providing electricity to children of the Third World.

Despite the immense impediment to transporting anything in such incredibly steep and forested terrain, Bhutan’s remarkable program of electrification suggests the real missing ingredient in providing access to energy is the will of government.