About 40 per cent of the people in Bangladesh remain outside the power grid coverage. And even those who do have power connections, do not get an uninterrupted supply. The power infrastructure is riddled with glitches. And those with solar-powered home systems, have to pay exorbitant prices. The price of electricity is hiked at regular intervals. This is not conducive to economic growth or improvement of the people’s living standards.
The size of the population and the economy is increasing and so is the demand for electricity. By the year 2041, the demand would have gone up multiple times. Electricity must be taken to the villages, the towns, the islands, the hills, plains, the coast, everywhere. Power generation must be increased. The question is, what is the most sustainable, cost effective and safe way to meet this target.
The government has taken up a master plan (PSMP 2016) to purportedly generate electricity in keeping with the growing demand. An extensive analysis of this has revealed that a completely foreign team with the help of a few foreign companies will take this up, ushering in an alarming future for Bangladesh.
The manner in which the government is handing over gas to the foreign companies, the Sundarbans will be destroyed, the coast will remain unprotected and climate change will render Bangladesh all the more vulnerable.
Agreements that go against national interests will pose as a threat to national security, loans will increase and the price of electricity will gradually increase too. What is the way out? Is there no way to resolve the power problems without endangering the entire country?
We have been working on this question for some years. We have observed the experience of various countries, or the alternatives sought by Europe, America, India, China, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and other countries. We have spoken to experts from these countries and studied their research. We have tested the geological nature of Bangladesh, its resources and strengths, limitations, as well as institutional and ethical obstacles, spoken to experts, and studied research carried out by the government and other institutions and individuals.
On 22 July we put forward a draft on behalf of the national committee for the protection of oil-gas-mineral and power resources. Ministers, MPs, government officials and others reacted to this on TV and in the newspapers, raising several questions. For example, they said, “This can be an expectation, a dream, a vision, but not a reality,” “We will have to take this direction in the future, but it’s not possible overnight,” “We have a lack of land space, solar energy is not possible now,” “We do not have good experiences,” “This will require a large amount of capital which we do not have,” “No one is interested to invest in renewable energy,” and so on.
A reading of the initial draft of our main report would make it clear that we did not expect everything to take place overnight and immediately. We took land, capital, technology, institutions, everything into consideration.
In the short term, we recommended small changes in the prevailing power generation framework. Our proposed framework stated that by 2021, of the total power generation, 59 per cent will come from gas, 19 per cent from oil, 10 per cent from renewable energy (5 per cent solar, 3 per cent wind and 2 per cent waste), and 7 per cent through regional cooperation. Our main proposal was to implement at a state level, during this period, the seven-point proposal of the national committee, including policy and institutional changes. Accordingly, the scope for ample research and investment was to be created in order to expand national capacity by 2021.
The government’s master plan does not include the matter of future gas exploration, though the government is going ahead with export-oriented offshore gas deals. That is why we stressed the need to cancel the export-oriented gas deals, to expand of BAPEX’s scope of work, to ensure institutional development to increase national capacity, and to carry out regular onshore and offshore exploration. At the same time, we called for the establishment of an overall institutional base to go towards developing renewable energy.
In the mid-term (till 2031), even though gas supply from old gas fields decreased, there would be fresh gas supply with proper shallow and deep sea exploration. If there was a shortfall for any reason, even then gas import would be relatively profitable. By then there would be considerable increase in the capacity to utilise renewable energy sources.
In this span of time, gas-fired electricity would still top the list at 49 per cent, followed by renewable energy at 39 per cent (27 per cent solar, 7 per cent wind and 5 per cent waste), then oil 7 per cent and regional cooperation 5 per cent.
In the long term, qualitative changes in national capacity will be ensured to take power generation from renewable energy sources to the top. It will be possible by 2041 for power generation from renewable energy sources to be 55 per cent (solar 42 per cent, wind 8 per cent and waste 5 per cent). Natural gas will be second at 37 per cent. Oil and regional cooperation will account for 8 per cent.
Even two years ago we did not have the courage to depend so much on renewable energy. However, technological advancements in this field around the world, decrease in costs and the potential of rapid progress in future, have given us strong hope. We have also been emboldened by the way in which India, Sri Lanka and China are progressing with this growing technology.
Bangladesh is a densely populated country with less land and more people. For the sake of food security, no proposal to waste agricultural land can be acceptable. When it comes to solar energy, the government repeatedly raises the issue of land shortage, yet at the same time is taking up development projects which destroy land, agricultural land, forest and water resources and is backing local and foreign companies for the same.
Actually the conventional concept of land and solar energy no longer stands true. The land requirement for technological development has decreased considerably. Even if the amount of solar energy we proposed for 2041 is all on land, it will still just take up only 0.55 of the country’s land area. It will be possible to easily acquire the space needed for the growing demand of this electricity by including the roofs of various buildings in the cities, schools, colleges, offices, courthouses, hospitals, commercial buildings, abandoned land, water bodies, etc, all over the country. And it will also be possible to implement a considerable percentage of solar power generation using large amounts of land in government hands, occupied by various influential groups. We have also proposed wind energy, based on the latest study of wind currents. It is the same about generation gas or electricity from waste.
Cost and expenditure-wise, our proposal is much stronger than the government model. International studies show that the price of solar energy decreased by 58 per cent per unit in five years from 2010. It will go down by another 59 per cent by 2025, according to estimates. The government’s PSMP also indicates that till 2040 the cost of solar energy will decrease (50 per cent), wind power costs will decrease (30 per cent) and battery prices will go down by 45 per cent. And yet rather than go to where the prices are decreasing, the government is opting for where costs are increasing.
The government’s master plan looks to investment US$ 129 billion by 2041 in various power generation sectors. This does not include primary energy costs. In the latest budget, the government has allocated Tk 31,393 crore (Tk 313.93 billion) in various power projects including the Rooppur plant. In the proposal of the national committee, at the most US$ 110 billion will be required for the next 25 years, including battery costs. This will decrease further. The US$ 19 billion that will be saved by our master plan for power, can construct six Padma bridges with a Tk 8000 crore (Tk 80 billion) to spare. And also, forests, rivers, hills, wind and people will be spared.
As it is, over the past 10 years the price of electricity more than tripled. According to the government’s master plan, the price of electricity will have o be raised every year. On the other hand, the national committee proposal maintains that the per unit cost of electricity will not have to be raised, but will most likely be decreased in the future.
While the government is coming up with backward-looking, environmentally harmful and costly power plans as a solution, our proposal is for a forward-looking, environmentally friendly and low-cost effective solution. There is no need for self-destructive projects like Rampal and Rooppur. There are many more economically, socially and environmentally better options. That is what we have presented.
Indications worldwide point out that in the near future, given the rapid developments in technology, it will be possible to get electricity in cheaper and improved ways than even our plans for power generation in short, mid and long term projections. But this will require fundamental policy changes and national institutional development.
It is not just in the power sector, but there is potential for an overall very good future for Bangladesh. The main condition is to turn away from the profit-mongering local and foreign groups and to uphold the interests of the people.
* Anu Muhammad is an economist and energy activists. T his column, originally published in Prothom Alo Bangla print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.