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The Train To The Roof Of The World

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In 2005, when China completed building the world's highest railways in the Tibetan plateau at a height of over 5,000 metres, many believed the sole purpose of the railways would be to open up Tibetan resources for feeding the Chinese economy. In fact, only four years ago, in 2001, China had discovered massive oil and gas reserves in Tibet which could be compared favorably with the biggest oil reserves in the world. In 2006, PetroChina invited global bids for participation in the exploration of oil blocks in Qiantang. The block in Qiantang alone held 10 billion tonnes of oil and gas, reported  The Guardian. With its massive efforts at building roads and railways connecting Tibet to the mainland, the Chinese intention of placing Tibet as an important piece in the Chinese energy supply was clear.

However, to do that, it is transmission lines and not railways that need to be built. It is not the oil but the abundance of clean energy resources in Tibet that holds more promise and a one cleaner too. Tibet is blessed with good solar, wind, hydro and geothermal energy resources. To develop these resources, transmission lines connected to the demand centres are required, as there is not enough demand in Tibet itself to realise this clean energy promise. Building transmission lines are far easier and cheaper to build than high speed railway tracks. Obviously enough clean energy generation will also do a lot more global good and cause no local environmental degradation.

 After the Sahara desert, Tibet has the world's best solar energy potential. The high quality of solar radiation available in Tibet along with the low temperatures mean that the cost of producing the solar energy on Tibetan plateau would be a third lower than the cost of producing the solar energy even at the best of sites in Rajasthan, India. This great quality of solar radiation when coupled with the Tibetan plateau spread over 1.2 million square kilometres explains the near limitless potential for solar power generation in Tibet. As the cost of solar panels continue to reduce - also due to lower manufacturing costs in China- coupled with the Tibet's natural cost advantage, it is easy to see why financing of solar power in Tibet would be easier.

Tibet has the potential to become the solar energy capital of the world. In spite of the fact that Sahara desert has better radiation available than Tibet, the latter has some unique features that works in its favour. Solar panels not only require more solar radiation but also lower ambient temperatures to function at high efficiency. Tibet being situated in the lap of the Himalayas enjoys low temperature as compared to the high temperatures in the Sahara desert. This aids in more energy generation. But beyond that it is also the location that matters. While Tibet is still located nearer to the energy hungry areas in China, the Sahara is located in a region where there is little appetite for the solar energy. Most adjoining African regions being rich in oil have access to cheaper although more unsustainable energy from oil. Also the political and technical conditions of the nations in the vicinity of the Saharan desert will impede the development of the Saharan solar resources. In fact, an ambitious idea of developing solar farms in Sahara desert and then transmit ting the electricity to Europe across the Mediterranean is yet to find much traction. The various components required for completing this vision- of which laying underground transmission cables across the Mediterranean sea is only one - are facing financing troubles. In contrast, laying a transmission line between the Tibetan plateau and the Chinese mainland will be both easier and cheaper. Investments worth $300 million aimed at installing 100 MW of solar power is slated for this year, reports The China Daily.

But there is more to the 'forbidden empire' than just solar power. Tibet is the water tower of South Asia. Many rivers on which China already have and continue to build massive hydroelectric power stations also originate in Tibet. All provinces in Tibet already have small scale hydro power plants. However, hydro power also continues to be afflicted by other environmental and social concerns and therefore we might shift our attention to the other renewable energy resources in Tibet.

Being a Himalayan plateau, Tibet also has good wind resources pegged at more than 93 billion Kwh annually along with more than a thousand prospective geothermal energy generation sites as per china information centre. Another report by climate connect pegs this potential at around 300 GW. That is an enormous number considering the fact that the total electricity generation in 2010 in India was only half this number.

In fact, only if the Tibetans could buy reprieve from the Chinese ambitions for the Tibetan resources in lieu of clean energy generation then the roof of the world could be saved from much of the unwanted environmental degradation. In a land that believes in Buddhism, a religion that has environmental virtues deeply built into it, that would be a much welcome reprieve. The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet has often expressed his concern over climate change and its effects. Generating clean energy will go a long way in contributing to that vision. Perhaps only if it were a choice left to the Tibetan people, I'm sure it would have been exercised.

But even for economic reasons alone it makes a good case to tap the clean energy potential at the roof of the World. If Tibet does becomes the solar capital of the world, it would also bring much global attention to this part of the world and the uncomfortable history of Lhasa, something that the Chinese government wants to keep out of global debate. It is very likely that the political consideration will supersede economic one in this case.

Yash Saxena is a sustainability consultant with Emergent Ventures, a climate change mitigating consultancy. He also works on innovation evangelism with Techpedia
yash (dot) saxena (at) emergent-ventures (dot)com

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