Beating the blues (of the cold season)


Exploring the best source of energy

Dochula pass, the highest point on the Thimphu to Wangdue highway, offers panoramic views of the surrounding hills and snow-capped mountains to the north.

On a clear day you can even see the Gasa dzong, a distant white speck, through the windswept spruce and fir trees.  But at 3,100m, Dochula can get awfully cold and icy in the mornings, evenings and at night.

Holding a steaming mug of suja, Lam Nim Tsheri gazes at the white peaks through the window of his single-storied masonry house in Dochula.  A gust of wind rattles the window frames, but the air inside is still.  The steam from the mug wafts gently upwards.

The shiny wooden flooring of the house, which is used as an altar, living room and bedroom, is carpeted, and the painted window frames duct taped. “Here, you have to insulate to trap the heat,” he said.  Where the gaps are wide, like where the window frames join the wall, pieces of cloth have been stuffed to block the draft from coming in.

To keep warm, Lam Nim Tsheri, 37, uses a radiator and halogen heater to warm the room. “Although a bukhari (wood-fed heater) produces more heat, electric heaters are convenient for monks like him, as he need not spend time collecting firewood and making the fire. “We just put on the heater, as and when we need it,” he said.  His wooden bed is by the side of the window that catches the rays and warmth of the morning sun.

Another 40-year old monk, Ugyen, from Sha Kunzaling, who lives in Dochula, has duct taped the gaps on the wooden flooring. “Such insulation is very effective in retaining heat within the room,” he said.

Which energy source?

With the coldest and darkest months of year here what is the best source of energy to keep warm?

The main source of warmth is the sun and as it is traditionally said in some parts of the country, “winter sun has owners”. Try and stand in front of someone who is soaking up the solar.

Solar energy is not counted here because like the best things in life, it’s free. You don’t pay bills for using its energy.

But you do pay for using electric heaters and blowers, kerosene heaters, LPG gas heaters and the wood-fed Bukhari heaters.

After the sun the next preferred heating mode is the Bukhari, commonplace in many small townships up in the hills but becoming a rarity in the capital city primarily because of the difficulty of getting firewood. Nowadays many of the concrete structures coming up do not allow tenants to install Bukharis in winter because it’s messy and dirties the building.

Quite a few Bukharis are still burning these days in the capital because of the availability of briquettes compacted from sawdust and other waste in sawmills. Here too demand far outstrips supply and its purchase is rationed to a certain quantity an individual.

Rationing is also done for quota kerosene, which is limited to 50 litres a person a month, but this is mainly to check deflection to India, hoarding and misuse.

One heating option that has picked up in recent years is the kerosene heater from Korea. The agents also provide a good back up service but the downside is the invisible fumes it emits is considered to be very harmful for babies and little children. It also tends to cause a burning sensation to the eyes.

The other heating device that is not so common is the LPG heater that comes together with a blower option. Some people find using gas for heating risky but those using it say it quickly warms a small room.

So which source of energy is the most affordable? Bhutan Power Corporation officials still believe that electricity might be the best option.

Here is a theoretical comparison on how the energy sources cost. It’s based on numerous assumptions.
Take a look below.

Simple calculation for comparing the consumption of fuel for heating

Types of fuel Unit Rate Qty Amount Remarks
Firewood Truck 8,000.00 1.00 2,000.00 Assuming 1 truck load lasts for 4 months
Briquette Bag 150.00 10.00 1500.00 Assuming 10 bags lasts a month
Kerosene Ltr 15.04 100.00 1504.00 Assuming 100 litres is consumed a month
Gas Cylinder 480.00 2.00 960.00 Assuming 2 cylinders consumed a month
Electricity kwh 1.80 800.00 864.00 Assuming 2KW load heater used for 8 hrs a day with the average of Nu.1.8 a unit, calculated for a month

Note: This comparison is based on simple assumptions. To know actual comparison generation of heat by each of the fuels would have to be considered. It might even need segregating each of the fuels used for cooking and other purposes. This would require a lot of real data.

Seventeen kilometres away in Thimphu valley, which is at a much lower elevation of about 2,560m, a 44-year old corporate employee, who lives in a concrete building in Olakha, uses two kerosene ovens, two radiator heaters and one halogen heater to keep the warmth flowing.

The employee, who owns the five-storied building, uses the radiator heaters in the two bedrooms she and her daughter use, the kerosene heaters are used to warm the two sitting rooms of the apartment. “The halogen is to keep the kitchen warm,” she said.

Paying a monthly electric bill of Nu 850 to Nu 1,100 and buying 50 litres of kerosene worth Nu 750, she said, although it’s expensive, she did not mind, as long as the apartment was warm.

Keeping warm in winter increases electricity consumption. The cost for electricity use to keep warm in winters is more than twice the bills homes get in summer.

In Changzamtog, another corporate employee, who lives in a two-storied residential building, keeps warm by placing a blower heater under a low table, which is covered with a cloth sheet.  The eight people in the house sit on the floor and stick their feet under the table to keep warm.

“When we use other heaters, we have to keep the doors closed, but with a blower underneath the table, we can breathe fresh air and keep warm,” Karma, said.  His family chats, eats and plays on the table.

He pays a monthly electric bill of more than Nu 700 to Nu 1,000.  At times, he uses a halogen heater, when there are fewer people.

Calling it a Japanese technique Karma learnt it from his sister’s Japanese neighbours. “It’s effective and convenient in spacious houses,” he said.

To the extreme north, some 171km away from Dochula, except for the spruce and juniper trees, everything has become barren, and the snow cover is gradually reaching a village in Laya.  The community has begun its migration to the warmer valleys of Punakha.

A four-member family in Laya Lubcha keeps the fire burning in their bukhari from 6 in the morning to 10 in the evening.  The family intends to migrate to Punakha next week. “It’s impossible to live here,” Sonam Chopel, 39, said. “We finish about three loads of firewood everyday.”

Laya would almost be empty in winter, except for the few old people, who are not able to walk to Punakha.  An elderly couple, who will live the next three months by themselves in their two-storied traditional house, painted with the eight lucky signs, say they have to sustain on the firewood their grandchildren stacked in front of their house.

“We make the fire in the traditional oven, as it consumes less firewood but gives good heat,” the 81-year old woman said.  The solar panels on the shingled roof provide lighting for a few hours after dark.

Situated at an altitude of more than 3,800m, fetching firewood in Laya is not an easy chore. “My grandchildren spent months to stack the firewood I use,” she said.  She estimates finishing about two truckloads of firewood in three months.

Architects and civil engineers say traditional Bhutanese homes, if properly insulated, would be energy efficient.

An engineer of department of renewable energy, Sherub Jamtsho, said traditional buildings, constructed of rammed earth and square in shape, are energy efficient. “The closer to a circle the structure is, the more heat it can retain,” he said. “And, if properly insulated, much energy can be saved.”

But building codes in urban areas, engineers and architects point out, are not energy efficient, as most materials are imported from India, and designed to suit a warmer climate.

They recommend constructions, making maximum use of sunlight and use of glass to retain heat.

Use of wrong materials in the wrong place could lead to making them ineffective at what they do best.

Recently, the Indian media reported use of glass in urban buildings as energy inefficient.

Down to Earth, a science and environment magazine, reported that buildings with glass facades had become a fad.  But glass traps heat, and buildings with high proportion of the material get overheated, pushing up energy use for keeping it cool.

Talking about hot places, the energy consumption in districts along the southern belt has decreased and, for once, fans and air-conditioners get to stay still or shut down.

“It’s the best time to be here,” a civil servant in Gelephu, Dorji, said. “It’s time for us to save energy.”

For those travelling to warmer climes for work or vacation, it’ll be safe to travel once the sun is out and about, which is at around seven in the morning.

By Tashi Dema

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