How Bangladesh can benefit from Japan’s super grid

Long-range grid connections – between states and neighboring countries – are economical and convenient

Japan has speeded up efforts to materialize its decade-old plan to de-carbonize Asia by connecting some of the biggest economies and the power-hungry populations through a 36,000km-integrated grid of renewable energy.

Bangladesh is part of the "Asia Super Grid (ASG)" initiative that aims at interconnecting electric power systems, enabling mutual benefits by exchanging abundant natural renewable energy resources, such as wind, solar and hydropower.

Asia Super Grid Renewable Energy Institute, Japan

The other countries engaged in talks over the proposed high-voltage direct current (HVDC) connectivity are China, Mongolia, India, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan.

The HVDC technology is described as the best of all worlds, as it travels long distances without losing as much power along the way as alternative current (AC).

The ASG was proposed by Japan’s Renewable Energy Institute (REI) Founder and Chairperson Masayoshi Son at its inauguration ceremony on September 12, 2011.

In 2012, the REI organized two international conferences with experts from all over the world, and discussed the possibilities and challenges of the realization of the ASG. More discussions have taken place among the governments in the following years.

With the Paris Agreement serving as an initiative toward transitioning to carbon-free societies in the latter half of the 21st century, as well as growing demand for realizing 100% renewable energy, the development of global energy interconnections has become an even more important challenge to address, the REI says.

Is super grid the best solution?

The idea of long-range grid connections – between states and neighboring countries – is nothing new in Europe, North America, and even in Bangladesh with the country importing 12,309MkWh of electricity from India for Tk7,603 crore in the 2021-22 fiscal year.

In recent years, with greater deployment of renewables, international grid interconnection projects are being implemented even more actively.

In Europe, Denmark is connected to Norway, France to Spain, and Sweden to Germany through super grids. These countries are set to phase out fossil fuel-run and nuclear power plants and rely only on green energy sources.

Meanwhile, the UK and France are benefitting from a project, titled “ElecLink”, rooted through the Channel Tunnel using HVDC technology, by transmitting 1,000MW of electricity produced by renewable energy plants. The plan was initiated a decade ago, reports Bloomberg.

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Mika Ohbayashi, director of REI, thinks the world is past the point where the actions of individual countries can move the needle on climate change.

“Developed countries, like Japan and in the western world, have to have renewable energy more than 60% or 70%, 80% by 2030. So, we don't have enough time to do it, so I'm already saying, every single cent or every single yen that we invest something has to be invested for climate change actions from now on,” she told Bloomberg recently.

The ASG focuses on eastern Asian countries, like China, Korea and Mongolia, that have the best renewable energy potential in the region.

Theoretically, wind and solar energy from Mongolia's Gobi Desert could produce as much as 2.6 terawatts of electricity, more than twice the capacity of the entire United States, Bloomberg said.

The ASG would link that power to the countries that produced more than 1/3 of the world's CO2 emissions.

China’s Global Grid

In North East Asia, there have been very limited grid interconnections between China, Mongolia, Russia and other neighboring countries.

Meanwhile, China is trying to build the Global Grid, connecting the whole world through the HVDC lines, as it has already built many of them across the country.

Datong Solar Park, China

In March 2016, the Global Energy Interconnection Development and Cooperation Organization (GEIDCO) was established with the initiative of the State Grid Corporation of China (SGCC), aiming to realize global transmission interconnections for cross-border usage of renewable energy. The REI joined GEIDCO as one of its council members.

GEIDCO consists of power companies, universities and research institutes, as well as international companies in the field of grid operations, and is the global version of the REI’s ASG concept, aiming for greater usage of renewable energy on a global scale.

Initially, China proposed a renewable energy grid network with Russia, Mongolia, Korea and Japan, with plans to build an undersea power line linking the Chinese port of Weihai with Incheon in Korea while Vladivostok would be linked to North Korea by some 1,000km of landlines.

Both the ASG and GEIDCO initiatives have stumbled in recent months due to bloc politics, Covid-19 and the Ukraine crisis. 

Meanwhile, the progress of the Asean Power Grid (APG), a joint project of countries under the platform, has been slow. Asean has set a target of meeting 23% of its energy needs from sustainable and renewable sources by 2025.

 “We are still trying to struggle against each other, competing with each other. The Japanese government has tensions with other countries, especially China and Korea,” explains Mika.

Bloomberg assumes that countries that are not 100% friendly may not want to link their energy systems together.

Is Bangladesh ready?

To sync with the pace of development, Bangladesh would need more electricity to meet the needs of its population in terms of household and industrial connections in the next few decades – but that should come from renewable energy sources to meet the country’s climate change commitments.

The government is also on track to produce more energy and has an installed capacity of 21,924MW; but the highest generation was only 12,134MW on July 23, with the whole country being under electricity coverage.

However, this electricity is also not economical as the price is not affordable for many households despite the government’s huge spending on subsidies for the power sector in the 2021-22 fiscal year (Tk12,000 crore), according to the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD).

Moreover, Bangladesh’s overgeneration capacity reached 10,764MW from 8,231MW in FY22 – a rise of 30.8% from FY18, and it will rise further in the current fiscal year due to the projects being implemented.

Even though transmission and distribution lines have increased by 5.5% and 2.5% during FY22, the steps were meager compared to the country’s generation capacity.

Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park, UAE

The slow progress in transmission and distribution lines is a major reason behind poor load management amid a huge excess capacity, says CPD.

Since the country has to rely on imports to feed the gas- and fossil-fuel-run power plants, the prices of fuels in the international market also hinder electricity generation.

On the other hand, green energy projects are cheaper and cleaner than the power plants run by fossil fuels. They do not need fuel to generate electricity and do not emit any harmful gas.

Yet there are some drawbacks of renewable energy too: wind turbines create noise and cannot produce electricity with the fall of velocity. On the other hand, large solar plants require vast areas like the char lands.

Since Bangladesh has limited free space for a massive population and land prices are rising everywhere, acquiring land for large-scale wind or solar power plants has become a tough job.

The ASG can help Bangladesh get electricity at cheaper rates and from green sources, produced by large plants on abandoned foreign land.

Shift to renewable energy sluggish

Green activists say the government’s steps towards shifting to renewable energy sources in power generation have been sluggish. Still, the sector has drawn large-scale foreign and local investments in the last couple of years.

The projects in the pipeline will significantly increase the country’s power generation from renewable sources from the current 3.5% – against a target of 40% by 2040.

The country’s first nuclear power plant is being constructed now, with the first unit of the 2,400MW plant likely to be commissioned by 2023.

Bangladesh now produces over 890MW from renewable sources – a meager 2.9MW from wind energy, the country’s lone hydropower plant at Kaptai in Rangamati with a capacity of 230MW and the rest from solar parks. The progress of biogas- and biomass-to-electricity initiatives has remained insignificant – slightly over 1MW.

The future of renewable energy in Bangladesh, however, is not grim as the government has gone for strong efforts to draw in more investments.

Energy experts and green groups have long been demanding that the government and private companies increase investment in clean energy and that fossil fuel-based plants be phased out without delay.

Bangladesh has already cancelled 10 coal-fired power plants of more than 8,000MW, but it is also continuing with the 1,200MW Matarbari-1 coal-fired power plant in Maheshkhali with the Japanese government’s financial support.

Aerial photo taken on April 27, 2020 shows wind power installations in Weining County, southwest China's Guizhou Province Xinhua/Tao Liang

Japan, however, decided to backtrack from funding the second phase of the project last year to cut its carbon footprint.

Bangladesh now wants to set up an LNG-based power plant instead of a coal-fired one at the site of Matarbari-2.

In March this year, the 1,320MW coal-fired power plant at Patuakhali's Payra became operational, when the government declared the country's 100% electricity coverage.

Two other mega coal-based plants – a 1,200MW one at Rampal of Bagerhat and a 1,320MW plant at Banshkhali of Chittagong – may start commercial production this year.

These two plants are being constructed in association with China and India, and will use imported coal to be transported through ecologically-critical areas.

In response to concerns over environmental degradation in the Sundarbans mangrove forest and the seashore due to the use of imported “dirty coal”, the government maintains that these ultra-supercritical plants will not harm the atmosphere.