By Syful Islam
DHAKA, Bangladesh (AlertNet) - Rural areas of Bangladesh are to see an increase in solar electricity generation as part of an ambitious plan to boost the provision of power from renewable sources.
The government has set a target of generating 500 megawatts (MW) of green energy – almost ten times the current amount – by 2015, in an attempt to narrow the gap between current supplies of grid electricity and the needs of the country’s 160 million people.
Only 49 percent of Bangladesh’s population has access to electricity from the national grid. Fossil fuels account for almost all the current capacity of 5,500 MW, with renewable sources – mostly solar power – contributing just 55 MW.
The government says there are environmental and developmental imperatives behind its search for alternative energy sources.
“Burning fossil fuel emits greenhouse gases into the air, contributing to the warming of the globe. (And) fossil fuels are depleting very quickly which is a threat to future power generation,” said Tapos Kumar Roy, additional secretary of the Ministry of Power, Energy and Mineral Resources.
SOLAR HOME SYSTEMS
Solar home systems (SHS) are the main weapon in the government’s renewable energy armoury, because they can operate independently of the national grid. More than one million such solar systems have already been installed in rural areas where there is no other source of electricity.
Mosharraf Hosein Khokon, a resident of Brammonchak village in Bangladesh’s southeastern Chandpur district, spent 20,000 taka (about $270) to buy a solar home system. He sees little prospect of his village being connected to the national grid in the near future, so solar energy is a great help.
“The SHS system is helping us to light our four rooms. Now young members of our family can study with light from SHS, and we can watch television too,” said Khokon.
Roy said the government has identified about 30 remote sub-districts where grid expansion is not possible in the next 10 to 15 years.
“So we have no alternative to renewable energy to meet the government’s social commitment of electricity for all by 2020,” he said.
Since November 2010, the government has mandated the installation of roof-top solar panels on all new high-rise buildings, and it currently has other solar power projects under development with a total capacity of 35 MW.
Under the plan, 340 MW of new capacity will be generated from systems installed on residential, commercial and industrial buildings, as well irrigation pumps, mini-grid systems and solar parks.
Solar power systems installed on the rooftops of local government buildings, railway stations, and rural health and educational institutions will provide the balance.
WILLPOWER AND SUBSIDIES
Experts predict that the Bangladeshi government will need considerable political willpower and financial subsidies to increase its stake in green energy.
Rezwan Khan, chairman of the technical standards committee of the Infrastructure Development Company Limited (IDCOL), a state-run organization promoting renewable energy, noted that producing electricity from renewable sources is much more expensive than from fossil fuels.
He said that the ability to trade carbon credits under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) of the Kyoto Protocol may make it possible for the government to manage the high costs of renewable energy generation.
“But at the initial stage the government will have to provide a huge subsidy,” Khan said. He added that the government’s plan would only be viable if it promotes green energy without considering the economic costs.
At the Ministry of Power, Energy and Mineral Resources, Tapas Kumar Roy conceded that the cost of electricity from renewable sources is quite high, but said that solar power is still popular in rural areas for lighting, especially when compared to the cost of kerosene for lamps.
The government believes investments totalling $2.24 billion will be required to reach its solar power target. It is seeking about $1.6 billion dollars in financing from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and other development partners. The plan calls for the remainder to be funded by the government and the private sector.
Roy said that the ADB will hold an international workshop in Dhaka with other donor agencies in late September or early October to try to secure funds for the renewable energy programme.
The government is looking to generate green power from other sources also. An Indian company has proposed a pilot wind power project with a capacity of 15 MW, and private sector financing is in the pipeline for further wind projects with the potential to generate up to 200 MW.
The government is also studying the possibility of constructing geothermal power plants in the country’s northern Panchagarh district.
Abser Kamal, chief executive officer of Grameen Shakti, a pioneering organization in the renewable energy field in Bangladesh, said the government’s goal of generating 500 MW from renewable sources was possible but agreed that it would require huge a financial commitment.
Grameen Shakti has installed some 650,000 solar home systems across the country over the past 16 years.
Ruhul Quddus, head of the Rural Services Foundation, a Bangladeshi charity, said that the government was promoting renewable energy by providing soft loans. Twenty-nine organizations have partnered with IDCOL to install over one million solar home systems across the country. The total is expected to reach 1.5 million by 2015.
“We are going forward gradually. Though the initial investment is quite high, there is a huge prospect for solar energy in Bangladesh,” Quddus added.
Syful Islam is a journalist with The Financial Express newspaper in Bangladesh. He can be reached at: email@example.com