A partnership of and for power

Renewable energy partnerships in South Asia could be a saviour for the environment and address the region’s energy crisis

The year of 2022 is historic for Bangladesh. This South Asian country that achieved independence in 1971 has ensured in the 51 years since that people have access to electricity in every corner of the country. The monumental milestone of 100% electrification was achieved a week or so ago, connecting the final households to power.

But reaching 100% electrification was not possible alone with the energy grid. For remote and desolate areas where there is no electricity, it was solar panels which helped the government attain its target to provide electricity for all. This includes parts of the Chittagong Hill Tracts where the national grid did not reach, but solar home systems addressed that issue effectively. 

With these solar home systems, classrooms in remote areas now have access to computers, women now have opportunities to become self-employed, and irrigation is now underway with the pumps using solar power.

Currently, Bangladesh has an electricity production capacity of 22,296 MW. Among them, 50.82% capacity is from gas, followed by 27.98 % heavy fuel oil, and 7.93% from coal. Only 229MW of electricity capacity or 1.03% of the total capacity comes from solar power.     

Using renewable energy allows us to utilize less fossil fuel and over time, it costs less money overall. Solar energy creates pure, clean, and renewable power from the sun, a perfect alternative to fossil fuels, and reduces carbon footprint and greenhouse gases. Bangladesh has yet to make significant improvement in solar usage. 

Using renewable sources is also a part of the Sustainable Development Goals. SDG 7 focuses on the production of affordable and clean energy where the use of solar panels is an effective way to reduce fossil fuel dependency and increase energy efficiency.

The off-grid rooftop solar power, commonly known as solar home system, is an effective solution for people living in remote off-grid areas. So far, more than four million such systems have been installed, offering small-scale power to more than 20 million people. But considering the ever-growing demand for electricity and the need for the future, there is a huge need for power generation from renewable sources. 

Since power generation from wind or hydropower is limited in Bangladesh, solar energy is something that needs to be emphasized. 

So far, the government has approved proposals for establishing 19 on-grid solar power parks submitted by different private companies. But acquiring land remains a key concern for Bangladesh. No investors can use agricultural land for solar projects, but the non-agricultural land with prospects of solar systems is not readily available in Bangladesh. It takes three acres of land for the generation of one megawatt power from solar. 

A study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) estimates Bangladesh’s solar power generation potential to be 380 TWh per year (240 GW) using 1.5% of total available land. However, this estimate may be reduced, given that agricultural land is not currently available for solar power projects.

Considering the fact that the demand for power is expected to double in this decade, the South Asian nations -- particularly Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Bhutan -- should explore the opportunities for partnerships in the field of energy trade. 

Bangladesh has a target to increase the share of power generation from renewable sources to 40% by 2050, while neighbouring India is progressing fast in solar power generation through installation of a cumulative 49.3GW of solar generation capacity by the end of last year. In Bangladesh, there is demand, and there is supply in India. This is where Bangladesh may look into regional cooperation in the energy sector to ensure rational distribution of electricity.

On the other hand, Nepal and Bhutan are dependent on Himalayan-fed hydro resources. Bangladesh is now in the process of getting hydroelectricity from Nepal through Indian territory. Efforts are currently underway for a feasibility test on establishing a cross-border transmission line between Nepal and West Bengal of India and this connectivity, if established, will open an avenue for Bangladesh to get the electricity easily. 

Nepal is a country with rich water resources and has a great potential to generate hydroelectricity. Not only just import or export deals, but the countries in the South Asian region can also make joint investments in producing renewable energy and share the energy based on needs of each area within and outside the countries.

Instead of more investment in power generation capacity, Bangladesh can go for regional energy cooperation to develop the power exchange market, which will be helpful for the country to import extra power from the regional sources. Regional power trade can also allow Bangladesh to source cleaner renewable energy from India. The Indian Power Exchange recently launched the Green Day-ahead and Green Term-ahead market which can also be tapped for sourcing solar or wind energy.

Use of cross-border cooperation and interconnected power grids will not only lower energy costs, but will improve reliability, and reduce carbon emissions at a lower cost. Such partnerships can boost synergies among clean energy resources, particularly hydro, wind, and solar. 

Syed Samiul Basher Anik is a journalist at the Dhaka Tribune. This article has been prepared as part of a BEI media fellowship with support of SARI/El Project Secretariat under IRADe and USAID.

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