There is a pervasive pessimism regarding renewable energy’s (RE) potential for utility scale power generation in Bangladesh. For example, Bangladesh Power Development Board had accepted and issued letter of intents for implementation of 20 utility grade solar projects with contracts reportedly being signed between parties. However, of these, only one project of 3 megawatts (MW) was implemented at Sarishabari, Jamalpur. Citing these failed projects, questions are being raised about RE’s potential, with no new proposal currently under consideration. There are two problems with such reasoning: 1) most of the proposals were unsolicited, while the one project that was implemented was competitively procured; and 2) proposals were considered and accepted without undertaking proper feasibility studies and site assessments. The projects may not have been bankable from the beginning due to their uncompetitive procurement and unsuitable site selection. Globally, Bangladesh is renowned as a model for electrification through its Solar Home System (SHS) program. So why is there pessimism regarding solar energy’s potential for utility scale power generation? It should be noted that when we started the SHS program back in 2003 at Infrastructure Development Company Limited (IDCOL), some people expressed similar scepticism.
Admittedly, RE has some limitations in Bangladesh. In comparison with other countries, hydro and wind energy have limited potential. Only solar energy has proven potential. However, implementation of utility scale solar projects is land intensive. Given Bangladesh’s arable land and dense population, these projects might hamper crop production, human settlement and other existing uses. Although, around 4.5 million residential and small businesses have gained electricity access through IDCOL’s SHS program till 2017, this amounts to around 200 MW of electricity. This is meagre compared to the total electricity demand. However, in spite of these limitations, RE utilisation is growing worldwide and Bangladesh has further scope for expansion.
In order to achieve RE’s true potential, we need to scale up utility grade solar power generation in Bangladesh. During my recent visit to the United States, I have had the opportunity to interact with RE related researchers at both Stanford University and University of California Berkeley. Research from these universities showed that it is possible to meet Bangladesh’s current and future electricity demand through RE, mainly solar energy.
For example, a report published by University of California Berkeley’s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory mapped out possible locations for utility scale solar photovoltaic (PV), concentrated solar power (CSP), solar roof top and wind power projects in Bangladesh. According to the map, there are good prospects for solar PV and CSP projects in the northern parts of the country, the potential gradually decreases in the southern parts. Excluding cultivable, densely populated and environmentally sensitive areas, the report identifies a maximum of 1,690 sq km of land would be needed for these projects, which is equivalent to 1.2 percent of Bangladesh’s total land area. In comparison, Pricewaterhouse Coopers estimates that only half of this land area will be required. If solar power projects are implemented according to the map, 53 gigawatt (GW) of electricity can be potentially generated. In comparison, current installed generation capacity is around 13 GW. The report also estimated electricity generation cost in different areas of the country, which ranges between Tk 6.50 to Tk 8.50 per unit. This is competitive compared to fossil fuel based generation.
The report’s main limitation is that cost calculations are based on previous studies done in Africa and India, due to unavailability of data. This is not to say that Bangladesh’s actual potential can be fully verified based on this report alone. However, by utilising similar methodology and field assessments as other countries, it is possible to obtain a much clearer picture. So why are we not doing the same? The most probable reason is the presence of powerful fossil-fuel based lobbies. They include: 1) imported LNG based power producers; 2) local and imported coal-fired and atomic based power producers; and 3) companies interested in cross-border electricity trading. If RE’s potential is guaranteed, the business interest of these groups will be affected. I suppose that due to their influence, the pessimism regarding RE’s potential is being spread in the country.
In this context, it is important to take into account the risks associated with fossil fuel-based electricity generation. Coal-based power generation is harmful to the environment. The price of liquid fuel, coal and LNG is highly volatile in international markets. Nuclear power plants carry severe risks of accident. Increased cross-border electricity trade will make us heavily dependent and any force majeure closure will cause severe power disruption at the national level. Currently, electricity is only being imported from India based on an international agreement. However, China has recently proposed to export electricity to Bangladesh through Myanmar. In this case, China’s stance in favour of Myanmar should be duly noted.
Considering the associated risks and our national interest, we need to do the following: 1) restrict uninhibited growth of electricity demand by implementing energy efficiency and conservation measures; 2) engage in RE resource assessment mapping and its regular update; 3) utilise maps and site assessments to determine RE’s true potential; 4) encourage private sector to participate through competitive procurement (based on identified areas) and move away from the unsolicited proposal model; and 5) verify the actual generation cost of solar electricity. It is important to mention here that if the current plan to generate nuclear/coal-based/LNG-based electricity is implemented, then the average electricity cost per unit will increase in the long run as these are inflationary energy sources. In comparison, with the development of technology, I think that solar electricity generation’s cost per unit will come down over time.
After taking these steps, it will be possible to create a safe, risk-free, cost effective, self-reliant and sustainable electricity system in Bangladesh. Such a policy will also be in line with the global trend of transitioning from fossil fuel to RE based systems.