PSH scoping in the Kingdom of Happiness

This is Part 3 of a four-part blog series. AWP Program Lead Rohan Kent writes about his recent scoping mission with ANU on sites for Pumped Storage Hydropower in the Himalayan region. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

It’s reported that only a handful of pilots globally are qualified to make a successful landing at Paro International Airport. This airport is nestled amongst the 18,000ft peaks and has a runway of only 6500ft. The approach weaves in and around the heavily forested mountains, until the runway is only sighted at the last minute. The landing is all undertaken visually, and only during daylight hours. Upon touchdown, I can safely report one does indeed feel a definite sense of happiness to be back on solid ground.

This country is a stark difference to the hustle and bustle of India, with the measure of the nation not in GDP but rather GNH (Gross National Happiness). National dress is worn widely, and there is a distinct lack of car horns. I’m told this is the world’s first carbon negative country, helped largely by the 70% forest covering, some of which we barely skimmed with the wings as we came into land.

Assessing one of the valley’s south of Thimphu, for its suitability as a pumped storage hydropower site.

Its these deep green pine forests that we soon find ourselves overlooking as we perch up at 10,000ft readying the drone for an aerial survey of the valleys below. Today we are mapping options for potential reservoir sites and cross checking these against the Pumped Storage Hydropower (PSH) atlas developed by the ANU. It makes for tricky work for the pilot, with the wind and the rain starting to close in. But the two scheduled flights are made, the hum of the propellers against the backdrop of the snow-capped Himalayas, drawing a growing crowd of inquisitive primary school children as we land on their school football pitch. The images captured, coupled with the atlas, will hopefully play a role in inform the options for policy makers as to the viability of PSH in such a pristine environment.

Drone operations on the oval of the Genekha Primary School, Geney Gewog Administration, Thimpu District, Bhutan.

Much can be spoken about the benefits of technology in the form of drones and laptops as essential tools in helping to decipher the landscape. But as we all know, it’s listening to the locals which helps to really educate us. A community gathering of elected officials, foresters, engineers and farmers from the five villages that form the local ‘Gewogs’ (village bloc) sit with us and outline their concerns around any new infrastructure that the PSH could generate, including dam safety, habitat destruction and the adverse effect upon local livelihoods through the redirection of (some of) the water away from animals and crops alike.

But equally present, were their considerations of the opportunities with this method to produce energy. For example, could the reservoirs be placed closer to the villages – rather than some distance away as we had been initially scoping – so the villages could utilise them for multipurpose activities such as additional sources for drinking water and irrigation.

The Great Buddha Dordenma in Thimphu, Bhutan, stands at 54m tall and was constructed in 2015.

It was also pointed out that the reservoirs help recharge the mountain aquifers with the associated small levels of leakages that come with such infrastructure. But the most interesting thought suggested was that these reservoirs would be the perfect consideration for water hubs in the event of forest fires, of which last decade there were over 1400. With so much of Bhutan covered by forest, maybe these potential reservoirs could play a vital role in disaster risk management for these – at times quite remote – mountain villages, and aid in protecting the surrounding ecosystems.

As we wind our way back down the mountains to a much more sensible 7656ft and the capital Thimphu, it’s this multipurpose consideration by the villagers that has really captured the imagination and the chatter in the bus. Where clean reliable energy production is of central importance, through the delivery of PSH and the infrastructure it requires, there seems to be even more potential than maybe we first thought.

Read Part 4: Nepal – A long and winding road

Featured image: Paro Taktsang is a sacred Vajrayana Himalayan Buddhist site located in the cliffside of the upper Paro valley in Bhutan. Images by Rohan Kent