Community-based clean and renewable energy for Aja community in Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary
Community-based clean and renewable energy for Aja community in Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary
Project Rationale: Aja Ney is one of the most sacred pilgrimage sites located in the Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary (BWS). It is a remote community of 34 households who have thus far been deprived of access to electric power. Due to conservation considerations and Park regulations, it is unlikely that the community will be connected to the national electricity grid in the foreseeable future. Taking all factors into account, the most optimal way to provide the community with access to electricity, a basic human right, is to install and commission a standalone Solar Plant in their vicinity. This project will contribute to multiple Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) such as poverty alleviation, environmental conservations and enhancing wellbeing and health of the people.

the project site is in Aja, Shermuhung Block, Mongar District. The area is a buffer zone of the Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary (protected area).

Aja Ney is a very sacred pilgrimage site under Shermuhung gewog in Mongar Dzongkhag. It is located within the buffer zone of the Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary. It is a remote location, a full 7 hours’ walk from the Shermuhung Gewog Center. Shermuhung Gewog Center, in turn, is 17km away from the nearest motorable road, which terminates at a place called Khadrak. The Aja community comprises 4 lhakhangs, 19 tsamkhangs, 8 huts, 2 guest houses, a park office and a kitchen, adding up to 34 households. All these households are permanently settled year-round. The local community grows potatoes and beans, and occasionally harvest star anise as is a medical herb. They also support their livelihood by rearing cattle.

The Aja community recently got access to the mobile phone network. The have access to adequate and stable drinking water supply. They also have Solar Home Lighting systems based on individual rooftop solar panels, which is just enough for basic lighting and for charging their mobile phones.

Problem Statement:
Although Bhutan has made tremendous achievements in rural electrification in the past decade, around 1.6 percent of the rural households (1600+ households) are still not connected to the national grid. Although many of the households are set to be connected to the grid in the 12th Five Year Plan (FYP) period, Lunana and Aja are two communities which are not in the list for grid connection. This is primarily due to remoteness of the two communities. In addition, when performing the survey for on-grid rural electrification program during the 11th FYP, it was assessed that the entire transmission line for taking power to Aja needed to be constructed through core zone of the Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary where felling of trees is strictly prohibited.

While constructing transmission lines for electrifying Aja is an environment issue, not electrifying Aja too has significant environmental costs. Majority of the 34 households in Aja Ney rely on firewood for cooking and heating, which not only puts immense pressure on the forestry resources but also impacts health negatively from the smoke. In recent years, Aja Ney has seen an increase in spiritual tourism, which increases the demand for fuelwood even more. Given the increasing appetite for national spiritual and eco-tourism among the Bhutanese, the forest resources will see even more pressure. This will also adversely impact the rich biodiversity in this protected area.

Furthermore, firewood collection consumes substantial time and energy of the residents which otherwise could be diverted in doing other economic activities and in spiritual pursuits. Therefore, it is a matter of priority to explore the means and possibilities to provide reliable & sustainable electricity supply to the people residing at Aja especially since it is highly unlikely the national grid can be extended under the current regulations.

Proposed Solution:
In order to i) ensure that the Aja community has adequate electricity for the future, ii) reduce pressure on forestry resources and iii) advance the use of solar power as alternate energy source to hydro, Bhutan Ecological Society (BES) proposes to assess, install, and commission a standalone solar photovoltaic (PV) plant along with enhanced battery storage and inverter systems. The project idea emanated from tri-partite meeting between UNDP’s Small Grants Programme (SGP), Bhutan Ecological Society and the government’s Department of Renewable Energy (DRE). Subsequently BES and DRE signed a memorandum of agreement to work on renewable energy in May 2020. This proposal has been developed jointly by BES, DRE and SGP, and BES will be the knowledge and community engagement partners for the project.

Owing to the prevailing financial position, technical feasibility, environmental concerns and the magnitude of the work, the electrification is planned to be carried out in 3 phases:

Phase 1: Solar Power Plant at Pema Yang Dzong (9 households)
Phase 2: Solar Power Plant at Nimathang (Main Community Center) (21 households)
Phase 3: Solar Power Plant at Dungkarcholing (5 households)

This project will cover phase 1, currently comprising 9 households. The phase 2 and phase 3 components will be pursued later when the applicant is able to secure sufficient additional funding.
Site Details - Phase 1:
The 9 households for phase 1 include the community guest houses, Lhakhangs and Tshamkhangs/Nomadic Huts. However, the team were informed that 10 more small meditation huts and 1 big stupa is going to come soon (the stupa construction has already begun). Therefore, a 25kW Solar PV System is being proposed at Pema yang Dzong to cater a reliable 3 phase power supply.

System Design Summary
Panels: The total number of panels required for 25kW system is 73 panels of 300wp each.
Charge Controllers: 5 nos. of solar charge controller are required which are rated at 100A, 120V.
Inverters: 1 number of 25kW
Batteries: 58 numbers of 24V, 300 Ah for 2 days autonomy.

Our confidence is solar power as a viable solution is based on numerous studies done on the solar potential of Bhutan. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) report Renewable Readiness Assessment: Kingdom of Bhutan, published in December 2019, states that “the irradiation is better than many regions in the world, such as Germany and the UK, which have already achieved a sizeable share of power generation from solar energy,” estimating the theoretical solar potential at 6 terawatts (TW) and restricted technical potential at 12 GW.

While we are aware of the potential environmental concerns regarding the use of large volumes of batteries, the solar energy generated during the daytime needs to be stored to be used after sundown, and batteries are currently the only viable energy storage device for these needs. However, we will ensure that the procurement of the batteries is done in the most environmentally sustainable manner. We will opt for batteries with high charge density, and longer life cycle. We will also investigate mechanisms for reuse and recycling of the batteries once their life is spent, in approximately 10 years. Keeping in mind the concerns, we have also designed the system to hold charge for 48 hours without sunlight, as opposed to the standard practice of 72 hours. This has significantly reduced the number of batteries required, and we hope that by the time these need replacement, better energy storage technologies will be available.

A key component of the project is community participation. We will invest in capacity building of the locals, so that they are able to carry out basic operation and maintenance procedures on the system. We will nominate and train a number of logmey-sungpas (electricity guardians) who will look after the plant and related systems. Support for higher level maintenance will be provided by the Department of Renewable Energy (DRE) under the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Royal Government of Bhutan. DRE will provide the overall technical support to the project. The project will encourage women and young persons to participate as logmey-sungpas and in other capacities. The rest of the Aja community will also be familiarized with the technology, and given tips on using the electricity safely and efficiently.

Though not a part of this project, an innovative financial model can be explored in subsequent phases of Aja’s electrification whereby the amount that the community pays for the energy consumed will go into a fund to support operations, maintenance, and upgrades to the system. The financial model may potentially include mechanisms that make it easy for the community members to pay for the required household energy meters and internal house wiring.

The Aja community will be involved in the project right from the start. We will use their porter and pony services to transport the solar farm materials to the identified site, and will also enlist their paid services for on-site labour. This will not only bring them direct financial benefits, but also establish a sense of ownership of the system.

Since this is the first project of its kind in Bhutan, it has the potential to be a source of great learning for similar projects in the future. To this end, we will also install communication systems at site that will allow us access to energy generation and consumption patterns remotely. By analyzing this data, we will be able to make recommendations to optimize future projects of similar nature. To this end, we will draft a policy paper as well as technical papers about the project. These papers will be presented at technical symposiums and government-CSO consultation meetings, both in-country and within the region.

The lessons learned from this project will also go into designing phases 2 and 3 of the electrification project for Aja Nye.

Additional funding requested from Bhutan For Life (BFL) for an amount or USD 138,000 and USD 135,000 from Bhutan Foundation will cater to the generation and distribution component of the project. The USD 50,000 fund from the Small Grants Programme (SGP) will be allocated for internal wiring of the existing 34 households in Aja community and in developing draft polices on renewable energy deployment and on seminars and workshops.

Our effort to take clean energy to the community will go long way in championing the common goal of poverty alleviation, environmental conservations and enhancing wellbeing & health of the people which are core to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The energy will not only directly enhance their living standards but also establish a solid ground on which to build a flourishing spiritual and eco-tourism economy.

Project Objectives:
1. Supplement the Aja Ney solar project to ensure the solar PV system is fully functional and utilized by the community;
2. Ensure long term sustainability of the installed systems through community participation, including women and youth;
3. Strengthen national expertise in renewable energy deployment through knowledge creation and dissemination.

Project Rationale:

This project goes towards closing the final gap of electrification in Bhutan. It will complement the Government’s mandate to reach electricity to every single household in the country. Since the Aja Ney area is a pocket that the government program has been unable to reach because of policy restrictions, bringing an ecologically friendly, community managed solar farm will augment the government’s efforts.

The overall project will install Bhutan’s first community-based off-grid solar farm, in the process generating valuable lessons in the technical, financial, policy, and management aspects of similar future projects, whether undertaken by the government, CSOs, or the private sector. The project component supported by GEF-SGP and implemented by BES shall supplement the overall project by ensuring the solar PV system is utilized and maintained by the community and by creating and disseminating knowledge on community-based renewable energy project.

The solar farm project aligns with a number of OP7 Strategic Initiatives of the GEF Small Grants Programme, as explained below:

Strategic Initiative 1: Community-based conservation of threatened ecosystems and species
The solar farm project will help conserve the sanctity of the Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary by removing the need to construct ecologically damaging transmission towers and high voltage power lines. Not only will this avoid the felling of trees for this purpose, but also remove the dangers to the biodiversity, particularly avian fauna, posed by the presence of these dangerous power lines. Additionally, by providing the Aja community with access to clean energy, we will discourage their use of fuelwood, which is another cause of tree felling. The reduced need to collect fuelwood also reduces the risk of human-wildlife conflicts, which could be harmful for both the humans and wildlife concerned.

Strategic Initiative 3: Community-based Adaptation
By using solar power instead of the more widespread hydropower, the project also enhances the resilience of the energy system of the community. Not having to rely on power wheeled via long runs of transmission line means that it is less vulnerable to natural disasters like landslides or earthquakes. Building diversity of energy sources is a very effective way of ensuring climate resilience for the entire country, and the Aja Ney project is envisioned to be an exemplary installation that will also incorporate innovative financing mechanisms that will bring the community closer to their source of energy, and grant them better control over its operation and maintenance.

Strategic Initiative 4. CSO-Government-Private Sector Policy and Planning Dialogue Platforms
This project will generate a large amount of valuable data, including technical data, data about the effectiveness of innovative financial models, and data on carbon offset by using clean solar power. This data will be used to draft policy papers and other reports to better enable the government to make planning decisions that incorporate clean energy with low carbon as well as physical footprints. The papers will be presented at seminars, conferences, or symposiums, as well as any other platform for CSO-government dialogue.

Strategic Initiative 5. Enhancing social inclusion
The Aja community will be empowered to operate and maintain their own solar energy system. Women and youth will be especially encouraged to participate in these programs. A model may be implemented where the technicians trained under the project will facilitate further trainings to other members of the community. The financial and management aspects of running the farm will also be overseen by members of the community. Aside from the technicians identified, the entire community will be sensitized to the solar energy system, the financial models, and tips on using electricity efficiently. The materials will be made in local languages, taking into consideration audio, visual, and infographic modes of communication that are contextually appropriate and disability-friendly.

Strategic Initiative 6. Knowledge Management
The knowledge gained from implementing the project will be valuable for capacity building of CSOs, government agencies, and private parties. The findings from the project will be transparently published for all involved organizations to learn from. This will go a long way in enhancing the technical and management expertise for similar projects in the future. The findings will be presented and deliberated upon at a technical symposium, and any other appropriate seminars or conferences. The findings will also be published on our website for public access. The learning from phase 1 will be incorporated into phases 2 and 3 of the electrification of Aja community.

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Project Snapshot

Bhutan Ecological Society
Area Of Work:
Climate Change Mitigation
Grant Amount:
US$ 50,000.00
Co-Financing Cash:
US$ 25,000.00
Co-Financing in-Kind:
US$ 10,000.00
Project Number:
Currently under execution

SGP Country office contact

Mr. Tenzin Wangchuk
Mr. Tshering Phuntsho
009752322424 (ext:330)


UN House, Peling Lam (Street), Kawajangsa, Thimphu, P.O. Box No. 162
Thimphu, Bhutan, 11001