One of Bhutan’s Cabinet Members a few years back had said that when the Punatsangchhu Hydro Electric Project I & II (PHEP-I and PHEP-II) come on stream and start to generate electricity, Bhutan would be propelled from a third world country to the status of a donor country. Today, a little over half a dozen years later, while that dream remains shattered, the nightmare lives on. In doing the PHEP-I and PHEP-II, this generation of Bhutanese have dug ourselves some fine burial grounds in which to bury all our hydropower dreams. Unfortunately it is not only the sweet dreams that remain crushed and trampled, but in the process we have imperiled the lives of many future generations of Bhutanese.
The dream merchants had sold us a dream so hypnotic and irresistibly alluring that even in the face of imminent economic and environmental disaster, some still believe that hydropower is the only egg we have. In the process, all our other potential eggs have remained neglected, the consequences of which we will have to face in the coming years.
We have been in a state of stupor for far too long. For sure we have been led up the garden path - not to say that it is without precedence – we have walked that path once too often. But none have been as perilous as this one. The path of doom that we are now walking has drawn international attention and scrutiny. Respected international institutions have expressed doubts about our ability to remain solvent, in the face of mounting debt. An alarmed national political party has gone as far as to call Bhutan the “Greece of South Asia”. The analogy is not very far-fetched, if not downright accurate.
Consider that each of these hydropower projects will, individually, end up costing more than the country’s entire GDP. And, when the curtains come down on these behemoths – all indications are that they are both doomed to failure – our economic enslavement would be total. Being called “Greece of South Asia” would be kindness personified.
Figures released by the government show that 80% of our debt is hydropower related. And, two of our biggest hydropower projects – PHEP-I and PHEP- II are in a perpetual state of reconstruction, rather than construction, caused by what they call “geological surprises”.
It is for this reason that I call upon our government to cut our losses and shut down these disasters – NOW - before we arrive at that point of no return. We are fast approaching that threshold beyond which it will be too late for us. It is wise to be subservient to a force that we have neither the wherewithal to withstand, nor to surmount.
As I have said in my last post, we have both the elements stacked against us – economic as well as environmental. For this post I want to restrict myself to PHEP-I and its economic aspects – plain simple mathematics.
PHEP-I was originally planned for 1,000 MW at Nu.35.00 billion
It has now been upgraded to 1,200MW at a cost that is not known as of now
1 MW is 1,000 KW
Therefore 1,200 MW works out to a total of 1,200,000 KW
Going by the level of efficiency at which the projects are being implemented, we can safely assume that the projects are unlikely to achieve 40% of their installed capacity. But let us be generous and agree that the projects will achieve an average generation of 70%.
This means that PHEP-I will generate 840,000 KW of electricity every day that we could sell to India at COST+ rates.
Now, we know that as of December 2016 the cost of PHEP-I has crossed Nu.97.00 billion from its original estimated Nu.35.00 billion. As of today, not even 50% of the project has been done. Thus it is safe to assume that the final cost, if this project will ever be done in the next 10 years, will escalate to a minimum of Nu190.00 billion, at the rate of cost escalation that has been experienced so far.
This sum ties in nicely with what the Hon’ble Prime Minister had stated during his State of the Nation speech – that the country has a debt of Nu.171.00 billion of which only Nu.34.5 billion is none-hydro. NOTE: India pays 30% of the cost of these two projects, in the form of grants. We pay 70% at 10% interest.
The following is a comparative study of the project as it was initially planned, and after its generation capacity was increased to present level. The statement shows a layman’s calculation of per KW cost of generation.
NOTE: The calculations are indicative and not accurate. It is merely to demonstrate cost escalation.
As opposed to the above, our hydropower egg basket – India – is looking at charging less than Nu.3.00 per kilowatt-hour, for their solar-generated electricity. Thermal and hydropower generation is now going out of fashion in the Indian context.
The above mathematics ignore the following:
1. It is absolutely impossible to achieve 70% generation
2. It is impossible to maintain generation of 70% every single day of
its rated 12,775 days of useful life
3. It is impossible that the plants will not require repair, replacement
and maintenance from time to time
4. Records from Chukha and Tala tell us that during the winter months,
generation drops to as low as 10% of their capacity
5. De-silting: how efficient is the design? (if this is not looked into properly
I suspect that instead of water, the dams will be filled with silt and debris
- reducing water storage capacity)
6. GLOFs/flooding/insufficient water/earthquakes
7. Huge Indian currency shortage caused by these projects
8. Cost of decommissioning at the end of their useful life
9. Depreciation of plant and machinery
10. Other seen and unseen costs
The Bhutanese people are constantly reminded that we have an agreement that stipulates that India will buy all of our electricity at Cost+ prices. I suppose India will be honorable enough to keep to their part of the bargain. But what is the guarantee that they will fulfill their promise in a manner that is beneficial to us, in the face of compulsions dictated by emerging market realities?
India is already electricity surplus, way beyond their need. Hundreds of thousands of GW of solar and wind generated electricity is going to be coming on stream in the next few years. Thus, what insanity would drive India to buy our electricity at Nu.18.00+? To fulfill the promise they made to us? Not at this price levels! They have other options open to them.
In my view the situation is headed in such a direction that there is no two ways about it: India will have to advise Bhutan to shut these projects down. Doing so will demonstrate that big brother India truly has Bhutanese interest in their hearts, as they claim they have. If they do so, they will stand vindicated for what they did in Doklam – that they have acted in the best interest of Bhutan, gladly and voluntarily, and without malice to one and all.
India should demonstrate good intent by not encouraging Bhutan to continue to tread this ruinous path. A mortally wounded Bhutan with her back to the wall can turn out to be a volatile ally. Before the situation spirals out of control, India should seriously look at reorienting its Bhutan hydropower policy. It will be mutually beneficial and strategically self-serving.