Little Bhutan’s Big Power

Bhutan's domestic hydro power needs are small. But there are large electricity markets in Bihar, Orissa and West Bengal, and a developing one in Bangladesh, which Bhutan can capture.

The four major rivers of Bhutan from west to east, are the Torsa, Sunkosh, Wangchu and the Manas. The four rivers have a total energy generation potential of 40.4 billion kWh. In addition, micro and mini projects on the smaller rivers and minor tributaries could contribute as much as one billion kWh.

At present, the domestic market for electricity is underdeveloped; the quantity of electricity consumed in 1987 was 70million kWh. It has not increased significantly even after the Chukha Hydel Project (which is on the Wangchu) lowered the electricity price from IRs 0.70 to 0.40 per kWh. Because the domestic electricity consumption is unlikely to grow substantially, Bhutan's prospects for development are not commensurate with its generation potential. Bhutan would do well, therefore, to consider the markets in India and Bangladesh when planning its hydro-power development.


To export to Bangladesh, Bhutan's electricity would have to be routed through sub-stations in West Bengal and Meghalaya, unless India allows the construction of transmission over its territory. Assuming that this is not feasible in the near future, Bhutan will need India's assistance to route electricity to Bangladesh.

In 1985, Bangladesh had an installed capacity of 1,050 MW and generated 4.5 billion kWh of electricity. Eastern Bangladesh generates electricity primarily from gas turbines and hydro-electric plants, and Western part of the country from oil-fired plants. Demand far exceeds supply capacity. The World Bank estimates a system peak of 6,553 MW and an energy demand of 26 billion kWh annually by the year 2005. To meet this projected demand, Bangladesh is speeding development of its 12 billion cubic feet of natural gas reserves in the east.

Presently, Bangladesh has one of the lowest per capita electricity consumption rates in the world. However, the country has a priority programme for increasing food production by adopting winter irrigation with deep-…………… pumping. Therefore, Bangladesh's consumption may exceed the projected development plans. Bhutan could capture a substantial share of this increased demand if trade and transit negotiations permit it:

India, for its part, is experiencing phenomenal growth in demand for electricity. On average, demand has grown 10 per cent per annum, a rate which is likely to be maintained throughout the 1990s. India seeks to achieve a generation capacity of 17,700 MW by the year 2000. To add 11,000 MW within a decade is a formidable task, considering the difficulty experienced in adding 2,000 MW in the last five years.

India's diverse electricity markets are quickly integrating into one. Beginning in the twenty-first century, India will have a well-supervised 400 kV network to facilitate interregional electricity transfer. There will be power corridors from areas with a power surplus to deficit regions. These corridors will consist of either HVDC (high voltage direct current) or 800 KV transmission lines capable of delivering large quantities of electricity with only a small loss of power. The first will probably be set up in the northern plains, connecting the North-East to the Eastern and Northern regions. Bhutan could take advantage of these facilities to transfer electricity, not only to the neighbouring states but also to the Northern and Southern regions of India.

In the long term, all of India is Bhutan's market. But for the next twenty years or so, the Eastern and North-Eastern regions are More important for Bhutan. Of course, the North-Eastern region is itself extremely rich in power resources and could contend with Bhutan for hydro-electricity markets in other parts of India. Arunachal Pradesh has the highest hydro-power potential of all Indian states.

The eastern region covers the states of West Bengal, Orissa, Bihar and Sikkim. In 1989, it generated 24 billion kWh, of which only 3 billion kWh were from hydro-electric plants. On average, demand exceeded supply by 10 per cent and the region has had to resort to regular load shedding. In the past, daily load shedding in Calcutta was more than 100 MW. (In 1988, the Federation of Chambers of Commerce estimated that India suffered a loss of IRs 75,000 million as a result of a 10 per cent cut throughout India.)

In the past, the Eastern Region has maintained a demand growth rate of about 9 per cent per annum, with industry's share over 70 per cent of the total consumption. At the moment, there is a move to provide power for irrigation and rural electrification. Bihar, West Bengal and Orissa are expanding winter rice irrigation by deep-aquifer pumping, so the demand for electricity is bound to grow even more.

Given these prospects for development, energy demand in the region is likely to exceed the projections of India's Central Electricity Authority, which estimates 104 billion kWh of energy and 18,111 MW of peak load capacity by the year 2000. Bhutan, which now supplies about 1.9 billion kWh annually from Chukha, can step up the supply to the Eastern region. As Bhutan has an untapped potential of about 40 billion kWh, the two countries have a unique opportunity to cooperate in hydro-power development.


Bhutan needs to take bold decisions to tap its abundant hydro-electric potential The hydropower resources could be developed in phases over the next 50 years. Phase I could develop the Torsa and the Wangchu basins, Phase II the Sunkosh, and Phase m the Manas river system.

Rather than evaluate each project in isolation, the hydro development plan should adopt a holistic approach to economic development in each river basin. In addition, the plan must consider electricity demands of the export market and be flexible to adjust when market situations dictate change. It must also include long-term buyer-seller arrangements to avoid misunderstanding at a …………………………

The first step, however, is to establish a reliable data base. Bhutan still lacks accurate data on rainfall, sediment load, and glacier hydrology. Bhutan could mitigate these deficiencies by involving regional or international organisations in the planning before launching any massive hydro-power development programme.

D.N.S. Dhakal has a doctrate in Mineral Economics and is with the Department of Geology and Mines, Thimphu. This article is adapted from Mountain Research and Development (International Mountain Society) December 1990 issue.

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