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22 March, 2019 00:00 00 AM

Future of renewables in Bangladesh

Before all the non-renewables are depleted, the country must adopt alternative energy sources, be it renewable with a bio-ecological/green revolution or nuclear power plants
Syed Mehdi Momin
Future of renewables in Bangladesh

As the world wakes up to the reality of the climate change and its impacts power will increasingly have to come from renewable sources. Bangladesh simply cannot afford to continue paying so heavily for importing fossil fuels. The government has a vision to produce 10 percent of its total energy from clean energy sources within a couple of years. As solar power is environment-friendly and the cost of generating it is low, expanding the use of solar power should be prioritised. Solar-based initiatives such as solar irrigation, mini-grids, rooftop-based solar home systems and solar power plants should be set up all across the country. Unfortunately renewable energy at makes up only 2.5 percent of total electricity generation in the country, according to a study of the Bangladesh Investment Development Authority. If that has to increase to 10 percent by 2021, the government should take various encouraging initiatives including allowing tax and VAT-free import of the machinery that is needed for green energy production. The country’s needs are growing faster than even its population, which is obviously growing rapidly. If Bangladesh is going to even begin laying the groundwork for a successful economy in the 21st century, its energy needs need to grow even faster. We are rapidly exhausting our non-renewable resources, degrading the potentially renewable resources and even threatening the perpetual energy resources.  

Currently, approximately 41 million people (25 percent of the population) in Bangladesh have no access to electricity. As electrification in the remote areas through grid expansion is challenging and costly, focus should be on using solar power in these areas. The government has already taken initiatives to set up solar home systems in many rural areas with much success. According to a report, 17 million Bangladeshis use solar home systems, making it the country with the second highest number of people who avail the system after India.

 Civilisation, as it stands today, is dependent on electric power. There is a direct relationship between GDP growth rate and electricity growth rate in a country. Bangladesh is said to be one of the biggest energy-starved countries, with the present demand for electricity at 7500 plus MW (Mega Watt) as opposed to the production of 5000 to 5800 MW. Access to electricity in Bangladesh is one of the lowest in the world with about 40 percent of the total population without access to adequate, cheap and quality energy. At present, we have to depend on indigenous and imported energy resources, which are finite as well – gas, oil, furnace oil and coal– to produce electricity. And about 55 per cent of our natural gas is being used to produce this power. The reserve of gas is not infinite and will soon run out. According to a recent survey Bangladesh’s proven and provable gas reserves stand at 28.62 TCF of which 20.63 TCF is said to be recoverable. Cumulative gas production stands at around 7.10 TCF which leaves the usable reserve amount at 13.53 TCF. We are already suffering from shortage of gas supply in households, fertiliser industries and other commercial sectors. Especially in the summer season when more gas is supplied to power stations, the supply is stopped to fertiliser industries. As a result, our agriculture sector is being affected.

Before all the non-renewables are depleted the country must adopt alternative energy sources, be it renewable with a bio-ecological/green revolution or nuclear power plants.

Nuclear energy must be used be Bangladesh to ensure mass production of low cost electricity. The government has been saying for quite some time now that the country’s solution to the perennial problem of energy crisis is through nuclear power production. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina herself has stressed the on need for nuclear energy while cautioning that there must be no compromise with safety issues.

Safety factor is crucial regarding nuclear energy. Nuclear power plants are usually built in remote, sparsely populated areas to ensure that accidental discharges in the form of solid, liquid and gas do not expose surrounding population to high doses of radiation. In densely Bangladesh such areas are at a premium and Roopur the Bangladesh’s only nuclear power plant is landlocked and there are large concentrations of people all around.  Even in developed countries where the power plants are in located in isolated areas there have been catastrophic nuclear power pant accidents of which Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1985 is but one example. Exposure to radiation particle resulted from such accidents cause cancers and deformities through generations. So the issue of safety can’t be overemphasised. It needs to be mentioned here that Chernobyl disaster happened because of human mistakes and not because of the reactor’s fault.

However there is little to doubt that nuclear energy is clean, economical and efficient. Unlike plants based on fossil fuels which spew tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, nuclear power plants don't produce noxious fumes. Nuclear power is considered carbon-free and produces more electricity than other renewables like solar and wind. Nuclear power plants produce far more energy than coal, wind or solar for less cost– a significant factor for Bangladesh where bulk of the foreign exchange is spent to import oil. Nuclear waste can be recycled and reprocessed. An extensive disaster management system must be designed before the NPP operation starts. Since we do not have proper infrastructure to give advanced warnings of earthquakes or tsunamis and have limited resources for making quick evacuations, any of the natural calamity will not only harm the residents but the nuclear reactor as well.  We believe that if the necessary safety issue is dealt with, nuclear energy can prove to be an effective alternative to conventional sources of power generation. The quick rental projects are stop gap measures which have their limitations. With increased industrialisation the need for energy will only increase and continuing to import petroleum is simply not sustainable. However for nuclear energy to become a success story in Bangladesh we need a pool of trained, skilful people. Skilled manpower can be built up by sending people abroad in phases to get the know-how to deal with the running of the plant which will produce energy in such large scale. The essential spare part should also be in place so that immediate steps can be taken in case of an emergency.   Nuclear technology is cost-effective, only the establishment cost is expensive but it is not very pricey to produce energy and it is cheaper than burning fossil fuels. And once we adopt this technology, we have to be bound by rules and guidelines from International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Nuclear reactors can provide safe base-load power on a large scale while taking the dependence away from oil and gas. It also does not have the intermittency problem that plagues most of the frontline renewable energy technologies we know of. Besides the technological aspect, it also offers the host country the independence and the energy security that is essential for the economic and political stability of the country. Energy security would also allow countries to be more sovereign is its decision making. Developing countries like Bangladesh quiet often has to make the very unpopular decision to raise fuel price (by cutting down subsidy) at the request of IMF who holds the key to most forms of aid provided to developing countries like Bangladesh. Removing dependence on fossil fuel would remove Bangladesh from such obligations set by IMF.

 Having said this, we also should invest both money and brains in other sustainable renewable energy sources. Experts believe that Bangladesh is in a position to exploit solar and wind power because it nature has blessed it with virtual year-round sunshine and wind. Bangladesh receives a daily average of 4–6.5 kWh/m2 as solar radiation. Despite the large potential, utilisation of solar energy has been limited to traditional uses such as farming and fish drying in the open sun. Solar photovoltaic (PV) are gaining acceptance for providing electricity to households and small businesses in rural areas. According to a World Bank funded market survey, there is an existing market size of 0.5 million households for SHS on a fee-for-service basis in the off grid areas of Bangladesh. This assessment is based on current expenditure levels on fuel for lighting and battery charging, being substituted by the cost of SHS.

Throughout the country, different government administrative offices, NGO offices, health centres, schools, banks, police stations etc are functioning. In the off-grid locations, these offices are either using traditional energy sources (lanterns, candles, kerosene wick lamps etc.) or operating their own diesel generators. These offices have separate budgets for electricity and can be easily served with solar photovoltaic applications.

Electrification by solar systems in rural areas has helped housewives to create some income generating activities (e.g. basket making, net waving, tailoring, etc.) The solar light has eliminated health hazards of kerosene lamps and thus provides a better environment.

An agriculture based country like Bangladesh has huge potentials for utilising biogas technologies. According to an estimate 29.7 billion m3 of biogas can be obtained from the livestock of the country, which is equivalent to 1.5 million tons of kerosene. Apart from this, it is also possible to get biogas from human excreta, poultry dropping, waste, marine plants, etc.  Wind energy potential can be used effectively in the coastal areas of Bangladesh.

However while these renewables have an important contribution to make, they are not in a position to provide the amounts of reliable base-load electricity which a modern economy needs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Only a nuclear power can do that.

The writer is Senior Assistant Editor of The Independent and can be contacted at: syed.mehdi@theindependentbd.com



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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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