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`Some observation on the transition of energy and power sector in Bangladesh`

Bangladesh stands at a cross-road of major transition from a less to a more and significant energy and power developments. 

Mega projects of coal based power plants, LNG facilities, related industries and deep sea port are going to transform quiet little villages and island into major power and industry hubs–thanks to the government plans. 

The projection to achieve a power capacity of 24,000 MW by 2021, merely 3 years from now is indeed challenging.

The wisdom of depending on 90% imported energy (coal, LNG, oil etc) and lack of effort to seriously explore the potentials of indigenous energy resources have also been questioned.

There are several points which stand out in any conversation on power and energy development in the country.

1) The constructions of infrastructures of the mega projects in favor of enhancing the power generation capacity are distinctly visible, though running behind projected timeframe. The sources of energy required to run these mega projects are not yet clear in many cases. Coal use for example is one of the central theme of the present policy drive for power generation and there are projection that coal power hubs will significantly dominate the skyline line. The energy observers are pointing out there will be a demand of about 40 to 50 million tons of coal annually in immediate future when coal power plant take up major share of power generation. Compare this with only 1 million ton of coal produced annually in the country today. Yet there is no clear indication where will this coal come from and at what price? Will the infrastructure be ready to handle such large amount of coal and will there be an experience pool of man power to manage it? And how will the economic pressure of importing such large amount of coal for a very long time are contained?

2) It is reasonable that Bangladesh increases the share of coal in power generation from its present position of only 2%. However, being overly dependent on coal powered projects, mostly import based, is not the best option for Bangladesh. Too many very large coal  power plants within  limited areas in the coastal belt will degrade the environment and would not be sustainable. This may make a crowd (coal) whereby pollution level will be difficult to keep under safe limit. Certainly coal fired plant close to the Sundarban will have additional risk of damaging or even destroying the largest mangrove forest in the long run.

A good way to take the coal power forward more safely and more cost effectively is to build mine mouth coal power plants in the coal mines that may be opened up in each of the existing coal fields in the north Bengal. These will make Bangladesh more self reliant and less dependent on imported coal. There is no valid reason for not developing underground mine, acknowledging the fact that open pit mine planning in Bangladesh has proved unsuitable socially and geo-hydro logically.

3) The slogan of depletion or exhaustion of gas resources in immediate or near future has been overly played. The fact that Bangladesh is the largest delta basin, part of which has been proved prolific natural gas bearing, led the geologist believe that there are significant untapped gas resources onshore and offshore areas of Bangladesh. By any standard Bangladesh is one of the least explored area in the world. A proper extensive exploration program would certainly find the significant gas specially in the offshore, enough to meet the present and near future needs. There are two sides of this argument. Firstly there are extensive area in Bangladesh that remain unexplored or underexplored yet holding good prospects. And secondly the exploration drillings in many cases in the past concluded the well dry and abandoned without being tested completely and conclusively and there are geological evidences that those could have been proved gas bearing if the tests were done completely and conclusively and using modern technology.

4) Bringing costly LNG now in limited scale to immediately meet the acute gas crisis has perhaps a logic in the sense that gas production is expected to go down shortly and the gas reserve has not been augmented by exploration and new discoveries.  But large scale LNG import over long term basis does not seem viable for Bangladesh. This is mainly for the LNG is very costly, has a volatile nature cost wise and this will eventually put negative pressure on the economy of the country. The price of gas has already gone up because of LNG import and is likely to go up many fold further pushing the industrial product as well as day to day living more costly in Bangladesh.

5) Bangladesh has a success story in developing off- grid roof top solar power known as solar home system (SHS) which has given electricity to a large number of people living in rather remote off grid area who would not have electricity otherwise. More than 4 million SHS installed domestically have uplifted the life style of these impoverished people by providing small scale power at their homes.  But in the context of national power demand and generation, the contribution of SHS is tiny, a mere 250 megawatt, which is only 2% of the total power generation capacity in the country.

In fact, in the solar industry worldwide, large scale solar power generation essentially means on-grid solar (grid connected). But on-grid solar development is unfortunately slow and much below the expectation in Bangladesh. The total on-grid power at this moment is about 15 MW with only one visibly and well publicized solar park with only 3 MW capacity in Jamalpur.

According to the government plan renewable sources should provide about 10% of the total power generation capacity by 2021 meaning 2400 MW power generation from renewable sources. With such low level of development it would be impractical to believe that the growth of solar power would reach anything near the projected target by 2021.

To date, the government has approved proposals for establishing 19 on grid solar power park submitted by different private companies. Individually the proposed solar parks have generation capacity ranging from 5 MW to 200 MW and the cumulative power generation of all these installations would amount to 1070 MW.  Among these, only six companies have so far reached final stage of negotiations.

Unfortunately none of the companies could complete construction and starts power generation till date although the deadlines have passed. From the above, it appears that the development of the on grid solar has so far failed to provide a realistic hope of achieving projected government target. 

What holds Bangladesh back in developing grid-connected solar power? Realistically there are a number of reasons that are restricting expected growth of on grid solar. One of the major challenges is the difficulty of acquiring land. As per the government rule, no agricultural land can be used for solar power project. Bangladesh is a densely populated fertile agricultural land and non agricultural unused land are not easily available enough.

Another drawback in developing on grid solar in Bangladesh is lack of governmental incentive. The companies which are engaged in negotiations and implementation of solar park opine that solar industry in Bangladesh is still in an immature and infant stage and requires incentives from the local authorities. A major point in this is fixing the tariff of the produced power.

Bangladesh does not have an option to remain isolated when rest of the world embraces a future with smarter and cleaner renewable energy for their power. The challenges in developing renewables may be high, but it is the government which should extend its hand to help it grow in the initial stage.

Dr. Badrul Imam is an energy expert and professor (retired) of Geology of Dhaka University.

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