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A quest for energy

  • Published at 11:21 pm January 11th, 2019
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For an energy-secure Bangladesh

Braving odds, Bangladesh has progressed as a promising member of the N-11 economies (next eleven emerging market economies). Sustaining this growth requires an uninterrupted energy supply and a careful scrutiny of the national energy mix to complement the government’s projected Vision 2021, Vision 2030, and Vision 2041. However, there is a shortage and constraint in the availability of harvestable fossil fuels, necessitating the exploration of newer energy sources.

Energy is a key indicator of a developing nation’s overall industrial, economic, and social development. With the meteoric rise of the metropolis, and improved municipal plans, Bangladesh also has thousands of ongoing and incoming development projects. However, the mechanical process of this development, including transportation, industrial, residential, and commercial projects, leads to incredible amounts of energy consumption. 

The country is already struggling to meet the domestic energy demand, and heading towards heavy import dependence. In 2018, Bangladesh Energy Regulatory Commission (BERC) allocated approximately Tk7,000 crore ($844.9 million) for the purposes of LNG (liquefied natural gas) import and operations of LNG terminals for the current year.

The majority of development projects in Bangladesh are petroleum and gas dependent, as these are the major fuel sources in the national energy mix. Additionally, the government is planning the graduation to middle income country status with access to electricity for all. To meet the national goals and continue the required infrastructural development, the government needs to have readily deployable energy reserves. 

Other than a moderate natural gas reserve, Bangladesh has a little oil and coal. However, like many countries, Bangladesh shares a growing concern of fossil fuel depletion at an alarming rate -- oil, gas, and coal will run out respectively by 2051, 2061, and 2081.  

This paradoxical situation requires addressing one pivotal topic -- the required energy source of Bangladesh. Should Bangladesh be moving towards alternative energy sources, and if yes, how far has it come? This further generates another question: What can be the ideal energy mix? 

Fossil fuels

Petroleum is one of the most demanding yet impoverished energy sectors in Bangladesh. Each year, Bangladesh imports more than five million tons of oil. In 2016, for example, the government planned to import crude oil worth $553 million, putting inflationary pressure on the economy. The latest and only oil field in Sylhet amounts to only 153 million barrels. This reserve, once drilled, will meet the current demand at the current consumption rate only for two years.

Although there is a sizeable gas stock in Bangladesh, if the current extraction rate continues, this reserve will dry up by 2031. But Bangladesh lucked out when it won 20,000sq-km of natural-gas-rich water line from India in a UN territorial arbitration in July 2014. However, this might not bear fruit immediately. 

Aside from the discovered area being highly expensive to excavate, the government has shown little interest in spending on the immediate energy infrastructure. 

Two bidders from Indian and US energy corporations have already knocked PetroBangla to operate in this 200 trillion cubic feet gas reserve area. Once run, the supply in the Asia-Pacific will take Bangladesh to a whole new level.

The coal sector in Bangladesh occupies only 2% of total energy generation as of 2015. The Power Sector Master Plan (PSTM 2016) targets above 50% of total generation (21.71% from imported and 29.07% from domestic coal) by 2021. 

The ambitious shift is easily justifiable. The explored regions with coal potential hold an estimated 3 billion tons reserve which can serve our energy demand for 50 years, considering 15% system loss during extraction. Principal barriers for such operations are the unfriendly methodologies of technical and environmental aspects. These barriers have even kept the proposed 30 projects and plants on hold or inoperable.

These depleting mediums raise the need for secondary energy sources. Considering the present energy mix vs future plan for LNG, coal, and clean energy, we have a very promising prospect for investment. As a clean energy source, theoretically we also have nuclear energy as an alternative option.

Renewable energy

Harnessing the full potential of renewable energy is still in its nascent stage. Although the total energy source primarily depends on conventional energy sources, Renewable Energy Policy 2009 of Bangladesh targeted 10% of total energy production to be achieved by 2020, while the share is little over 1% till now.

Despite its many rivers, there are very few torrential rivers to house hydroelectric plants. Karnaphuli Power Station is the only plant in Bangladesh that generates 230MW of electricity. As the southern Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) has mountain rivers with strong current, more hydroelectric plants can be initiated in this region to mitigate the demanding electricity gap. Sangu river with a potential of 58.33MW and Matamuhuri river with 20.83MW are options.

With a target to increase the capacity, the government also plans to invest $1bn to install a hydro-electricity power company. 

Aside from electricity generation, this plant will also be able to import electricity from hydro power plants from high altitude neighbours like Bhutan and Nepal.

In order to generate electricity from wind energy, Bangladesh Power Development Board has installed a total of 1,900kW grid capacity at Feni and Kutubdia Island. Another 50-200MW of wind power is at planning stage targeted to be operational at Parki Beach.

The most promising renewable source can be solar energy. With an ambitious plan, Bangladesh Solar and Renewable Energy Association (BSREA) is assisting the government to provide electricity to all by 2021. Additionally, Infrastructure Development Company Limited (IDCOL) had initiated the Solar Home System (SHS) program in 2003, having installed 4.12 million SHS units reaching 18 million people as of 2017. 

Through this SHS program and similar utility scale applications, the government targets to achieve “Vision 2021” with 1.7GW of solar capacity. 

A major shift towards solar energy in agriculture has the potential to save 1,700MW of power, and solar cookers replacing traditional ones can save 13,701 cubic feet of natural gas per annum.

What can Bangladesh do?

Although we talk about green energy and 100% renewable energy, we cannot shift overnight, nor can Bangladesh depend on a single source of energy. As both renewable and non-renewable sources have their limitations, it is best to use different sources with maximum strength in their respective application and usage areas.

Gas being the primary energy source, the uncharted area in the Bay of Bengal can be the best option for exploration of further reserves.  

The majority of the potential micro-hydro sites in Bangladesh are located in the CHT. However, establishing micro-hydro units require utilization of hydro-power and indigenous technical capabilities. The government should decentralize the micro-hydro units with local implementation and management capabilities. These projects will help overcome the chronic load-shedding problem in the CHT. 

Additionally, the self-reliance and use of local resources will have notable impact on the region’s development.

Energy needs for shoreline areas in southern Bangladesh can be covered by harnessing the potential of wind power. Natural disasters at coastal areas and over-and-under speed of wind are two major problems for wind power. The government should proceed for a proper wind speed calculation and wind mapping.

Off-grid and rural areas are the most suitable options for solar power applications. This potential power source can mitigate the under-addressed areas, when natural gas and coal power can be solely used for industrialization purposes and city needs. 

But it is difficult for Bangladesh to implement a grid connected solar system. Mega-disturbance, battery replacement issues, and power shortage are some of the technical obstacles to install mega renewable energy power plants in Bangladesh.

Land scarcity is a major obstacle for both solar and wind power plant installation. Hence, a trade-off between land for cultivable crop and renewable energy power plants is a critical decision for the government.

The absence of a tariff structure is another major barrier for both technology types. The existing tariff mechanism discourages the private investors to invest into the uncertain nature of wind and power energy. To address this case, private investment for the renewable energy power plants should follow a competitive bidding process.

If integrated, the above policy recommendations can serve as reference points for the future of the national energy mix. First world countries are experimenting with unorthodox forms of renewable energy for sustainable growth and eco-friendly industrial advancement. A developing country like Bangladesh should at least adopt mainstream technologies of renewable energy after careful analysis of the national energy needs. 

Riasat Noor is an energy policy expert and heads national and international power and energy projects, with work in energy value chain, sustainability reporting, and investment in the energy sector of South and Southeast Asia. He can be reached at [email protected]