The installation of more than four million Solar Home Systems (SHS) in the last two decades has made Bangladesh one of the biggest markets for SHS in the world. But these numbers, often held up as a renewable energy success story, actually mask a grim reality.
Many of the solar systems are of a poor quality, contributing little to the solarization of the country, say experts. High prices charged for inferior systems have emptied the pockets of consumers, but have not had a lasting impact on the overall scenario of energy generation.
According to Engineer Mahbub Sumon, a renewable energy expert, the average home solar system installed in Bangladesh in the last decade merely had a generation capacity of 20-50 watt, which is good enough for lighting only a few bulbs and fans. While modern solar panels used globally have energy efficiency of up to 22%, the Bangladesh market is still stuck with 10-12% panel efficiency. As a result, even after two decades of successful SHS dissemination throughout the country, the share of renewable energy in total electricity generation in Bangladesh is only 0.07%.
Engineer B.D. Rahmatullah, the former Director General of Power Cell, said that due to the very high prices charged for low-capacity solar systems, the concept of ‘renewable’ has gradually become unpopular among rural people.
He said, “Instead of pushing each rural household to pay a very high price for solar home systems, the Power Development Board could have built countrywide solar based minigrid and microgird systems which would drive down the price for the poor by ensuring economies of scale.”
The bulk of the solar home system installations in the country was undertaken either by the government-owned Infrastructural Development Company Limited (IDCOL) and its partner organizations or by private-sector companies. According to several officials of IDCOL partners, the commercial market which expanded during the solar home installation boom of the last twenty years severely lacked government monitoring and regulation, leading to a flood of poor quality hardware entering the market.
Currently, new installations of solar systems are encouraged by the government under a ‘Free of Cost’ program within the framework of KABITA (Kajer Binimoye Taka) or Money for Work. An executive at an IDCOL partner claimed that the ‘Free of Cost’ program of the government not only disrupted the existing business model, it also led to widespread corruption within the system of distribution. Allegations are common that the solar panels under KABITA are normally distributed to locally influential people, and hence fail to reach the bona fide non-electrified households.
Lack of ambition, policy direction
Despite the hype about renewable energy in Bangladesh, the current installed capacity of solar, wind, and biomass in Bangladesh is mere 242 MW. The government has declared a plan to install a total of only 2,666 MW renewable capacity by 2021, when the total energy generation capacity of the country will reach 24,000 MW. In contrast, the recent Indian figures of renewable energy installation show a striking escalation of electricity generation from renewable sources. India has set a course to install as much as 160,000 MW capacity of solar and wind power plants by the year of 2022.
While the recent Power Sector Master Plan (PSMP-2016) of Bangladesh government has shown the potential of renewable-based electricity generation to be as low as 3% by 2041, India sets a target to achieve as much as 40% of its electricity generation from non-fossil fuel renewable sources by 2030. Similarly, Germany is now producing 31% of its electricity from renewable sources and set a target to achieve 35-40% of its required electricity from renewable sources by 2025.
At a time when heavily industrialized countries like Germany and France and even developing countries like India drastically shifted from fossil fuel to renewable sources, Bangladesh government has been criticized for its inclination towards coal and nuclear energy. The PSMP-2016 has fixed a target of generating as much as 35% of electricity from coal and 10% from nuclear energy by 2041.
Meanwhile, 15% of electricity generation is expected to come from a combination of renewable sources and imported power by 2041. This particular combination of energy sources makes it difficult to figure out the exact share of renewable electricity from the energy mix. According to Professor Anu Muhammad, the member secretary of National Committee to protect Oil Gas Mineral Resources Power and Ports, this is a deceptive character of the PSMP’s renewable energy target. In this way, the renewable based power generation quota can easily be replaced by pumping imported electricity into the system.
Sheikh Reaz Ahmed, the Director of Sustainable and Renewable Energy Development Authority (SREDA) has identified ‘the lack of empowerment of SREDA’ as an obstacle to boosting renewable energy in Bangladesh. “Although SREDA is the nodal agency for renewable energy, it has limited authority to contribute to the expansion of renewable energy in Bangladesh,” he said.
This was echoed by BD Rahmatullah who referred to SREDA as a ‘toothless tiger’ whose real potential has been restricted by the Ministry of Power, Energy and Mineral Resources.
Moshahida Sultana, Associate Professor of Economics at Dhaka University, said: “Clean energy transition is an evolving process requiring not only new investments and infrastructure, but also price regulation, government interventions, subsidies and local innovation incentives. While sensible governments around the world are adopting appropriate policies to make major shifts towards renewable, the Bangladesh government is going in a flawed direction.”
Mowdud Rahman is an engineer and researcher and Maha Mirza is a researcher and activist.