The revolutionary improvements in renewable power technology, coupled with a drastic reduction in costs, have triggered a major shift in the energy mix of most countries, including heavily industrialized ones. Despite this global swing, the Bangladesh government’s latest moves reflect a half-hearted approach towards sustainable energy, indicating a lack of clarity at policy level.
The government in its latest Power Sector Master Plan (PSMP-2016) set a target to achieve a mere 15% of its power supply from renewable sources by 2041, and that is also combined with imported power.
This lack of ambition has dismayed renewable energy activists at a time when an increased awareness of the severity of air pollution, climate change, and the politico-economic instability associated with fossil fuel prices have led to most economies leaning towards solar, wind and other renewable sources.
Existing technology itself allows the use of agricultural land for solar production. It is already scientifically tasted that both agriculture and solar based energy production can be implemented in the same land by using Solar-sharing technology
At a press briefing last year, a Research Panel for National Committee to Protect Oil Gas Mineral Resources Power and Ports claimed that by investing USD 110 billion, Bangladesh would be able to meet as much as 55% of its electricity demand from renewable energy by 2041. While the research figures received widespread criticism for its apparent ‘unrealistic ambitions’, a number of internationally renowned organizations’ recent publications seemed to be reflecting similar findings.
A 100% renewable solution
The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) estimates that Bangladesh can produce as much as 380 Terawatt-hour of electricity (2,17,000 MW of Installed Capacity) by 2041. An IEEFA publication also suggests that by the year of 2024-25, it would be viable to produce as much as 27% of total electricity only from solar energy by installing14,600 MW capacity of panels.
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Lately, a group of scientists from Stanford University published a ground-breaking research paper estimating that a100% renewable energy-based solution for Bangladesh is not only possible by 2050, but also will be more economical compared to the other options (per unit electricity cost will come down to BDT 6, saving two thousand taka per person/per year by 2050). This study used a scientific methodology to examine whether it is economically possible to transit the power sector of 139 countries to 100% renewable with mainly existing technologies (and a few developing ones).
Much ado about land
There is a widespread misconception that solar installations require a massive amount of land which would eventually reduce the land availability for agriculture production. According to Sheikh Reaz Ahmed, Director of SREDA (Sustainable and Renewable Energy Development Agency), scarcity of targeted land and problems associated with land acquisition and evacuation for renewable energy are the main causes of failure to achieve the desired target. However, according to renowned Indian Scientist Soumya Dutta, ‘Existing technology itself allows the use of agricultural land for solar production. It is already scientifically tasted that both agriculture and solar based energy production can be implemented in the same land by using Solar-sharing technology.’
Although in general 3.5 acres of land is commonly observed to be used to install 1 MW capacity of solar panel, recent studies have confirmed that 1 MW capacity of solar installation might require as less as 2 acres of land. A research produced by Federal Ministry for Transport and Digital and Infrastructure (Berlin, 2015) shows that as less as 1.7 acres of land could be used to install 1 MW capacity of solar panel.
Innovative technologies such as floating solar panels (which seemed to be a challenging vision even a few years back) turned out to be feasible reality even in countries like India and China. Even Bangladesh Power Development Board has lately planned for a 10MW capacity floating power plant at Kaptai Lake. Experts are agreeing that these are ground breaking developments in the field of renewable energy which are gradually reducing the huge land requirement for solar projects.
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According to B.D Rahmatullah, the former Director General of the Power Cell, the huge number of un-used and illegally occupied state-owned khas land and water bodies in Bangladesh could be allocated for the use of solar based power generation. According to various reports, Bangladesh has 0.8 million acres of agricultural khas land, 1.7 million acres of non agricultural khas land and 0.8 million of khas water bodies. This means, by using only the non-agricultural khas land of the country, around 500,000 MW capacity of solar panels can be installed (assuming 1 MW requiring 3.5 acres of land), which is 31 times more than our current total electricity generation capacity.
On the other hand, according to Shankar Sharma, a renowned development and energy expert of India, ‘The use of ‘bulk’ land is not essential for the generation of solar energy. Considering the land scarcity of the country, it is preferable to adopt a decentralized/distributed solution for Bangladesh.
Lack of political will
A decentralized mechanism is widely used in different parts of the world for solar based energy in which the clients are encouraged to send the un-used/surplus electricity to the grid. According to Dr Sajed Kamal, an internationally-known renewable energy expert, the recent advancements of large scale storage technologies in the form of compact batteries have removed one of the major bottlenecks by supplying ever larger volumes of energy which dramatically enhanced the options for distributed/decentralized generation of electricity. According to Soumya Dutta, decentralization of energy production will also facilitate locally grown industrialization based on local skills and resources. It can also provide vital services like crop drying and cold storage facilities in the energy starved rural communities.
While renewable energy visions are widely confronted by the fossil fuel lobbies around the world, Professor Mark Z. Jacobson, the Director of the Atmosphere and Energy program of Stanford University says that barriers to implement the renewable energy-based plans are seen to be ‘primarily social and political, not technological or economic.’
The main obstacle against the ‘renewable vision’ appears to be a sheer lack of political will, say many experts.
Mowdud Rahman is an engineer and researcher and Maha Mirza is a researcher and activist.