The revolutionary prospect of renewable energy for Bangladesh

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The untapped energy mine
The revolutionary prospect of renewable energy for Bangladesh

Sajed Kamal

Think globally, act locally

During this past year and a half alone the world has witnessed some of history’s worst catastrophes related to nonrenewable energy uses. The Gulf oil spill, nuclear disaster in Japan, coal mine collapses and natural gas explosions; tornadoes, cyclones, floods, droughts, and melting of the Arctic due to climate change; oil wars that have turned the Middle East and beyond into killing fields; and ruthless exploitation and depletion of fuel reserves causing shortages and collapsing economies around the world due to skyrocketing energy prices. On the nonrenewable energy path all these predictable consequences come in the same package, and continuing on the same path takes us nowhere but a dead end. The long idealised energy-intensive lifestyles turn to ‘deathstyles.’

So, is there hope for a transition to a sustainable path of innovation, renewable energy and peace? The answer is: Yes! However, it will require for us to be awakened to the simple truth – and the holistic, perennial wisdom – that the essential condition of sustainability lies in our ability to live harmoniously within the limits and renewability of our natural resources.

Daunting as the task seems, we have the fuel source and the technologies for it.

Look at the sun – and the amazing set of technologies which are fuelled by it! Only one hour of sunlight falling on the earth’s surface contains energy equivalent to what we use globally for an entire year. Freely, the energy from the sun is received through the renewable subsystems of light, heat, wind, water movement and photosynthesis. In addition to direct uses, there are also an extraordinary variety of technologies to convert, store and distribute energy through a wide range of designs and scales. Photovoltaics, wind turbines, hydroelectric generators, solar water heaters, solar greenhouses, biogas plants and solar cookers are being implemented for a wide range of domestic, industrial and consumer products and purposes. Solar hydrogen fuel cells, biofuels and geothermal options are maturing through technical, economic, social and environmental criteria for widespread applications. With innovations and breakthroughs, there’ll be more.

What’s most hopeful, however, is what scientists are saying about the revolutionary potential of the renewable energy technologies we have now – and what some countries, such as Germany, Denmark, Iceland and the Maldives, are doing by setting their goals of becoming 100 percent renewable energy powered nations by 2050. Conservation and efficiency go hand in hand in that transition. The Energy Report: 100% Renewable Energy by 2050, released in 2011 by the World Wildlife Fund, puts it this way: ‘By 2050, we could get all the energy we need from renewable sources. This report shows that such a transition is not only possible but also cost-effective, providing energy that is affordable for all and producing it in ways that can be sustained by the global economy and the planet.’

There’ll be challenges. The global energy demand is estimated to double by 2030, but barely seven percent of it is currently generated from renewable energy technologies. Most goals in national policies do not exceed 20 percent by 2030. The grip of those with vested interests in the highly profitable non-renewable energy industry – and the highly profitable war industry – remains tight over the public mind, media and politics.

So, there’s work to be done.  A hundred percent transition to renewable energy – the sustainable energy solution – is achievable, but only if we exercise our choice for it. The revolutionary nature and potential of renewable energy offer us the opportunity to accelerate the transition – in which anyone across the world, in small and big ways – can participate. Through education and action, that power of the people needs to be unleashed. And time is of the essence!

Bangladesh: an untapped energy mine

Bangladesh is one of the worst victims of the global energy crisis, but it is also in one of the most advantageous positions to make a transition to a renewable energy path.  The country is richly endowed with renewable energy sources. Sunlight is abundant year-round in this semi-tropical region. Even during the monsoon season the solar radiation is as good as the annual average. In addition to ample light and heat, the hundred-plus-mile long coastal areas, hilly sections and islands provide plenty of wind for wind turbines; waterways of varied forms and speed provide sufficient wave and gravity driven water flow for ecologically balanced hydroelectric generators; and the lush vegetation provides rich photosynthesis and biomass for fuel for a variety of purposes. Compared to Germany – an inspiring example of a country set on a full transition to the renewable energy path – Bangladesh receives twice the amount of solar radiation than Germany. Bangladesh is truly an exceptional, naturally endowed and integrated, renewable ‘energy mine.’  Judiciously planned and harnessed, this practically untapped energy mine has an inexhaustible capacity far beyond meeting the country’s annual 4,000 megawatts of electricity need, while also generating other forms of usable energy such as heat and biogas. However large the capital cost appears up front, that cost will be minor compared to the alternative. That alternative is the vast amount of money which will need to be invested towards the, at best, short term solutions – but in the long run, dead-end non-solutions – from non-renewables, leaving the country only more economically impoverished and indebted, environmentally ruined, and politically vulnerable. None of these is inevitable if the current energy crisis – compounded by the catastrophic impact of climate change ­– is viewed as a warning, a critical turning point, a crossroads, and, indeed, both an unprecedented and one-time opportunity to act urgently on a revolutionary transition to the renewable energy path. Genuine international collaboration and support will be necessary for such a transition. That should be welcome: it’s good for Bangladesh and it’s good for the world.

Bangladesh’s renewable energy mine offers such a promise. Contrary to the publicised notion that it will take a miracle to solve Bangladesh’s energy crisis, it is indeed a ‘development’ blunder of a miraculous proportion that such a crisis could be contrived in Bangladesh.

Since the late 1980s, various renewable energy technology projects have been implemented at the NGO, private, commercial, academic and governmental levels. They played varied roles as users, educators and sellers. Through innovation and turnkey transfer, some components, such as charge controllers, deep cycle batteries, and 12V DC lights and fixtures, began to get manufactured locally. Forums, workshops, seminars and conferences began to take place at various levels.

Especially since the late 1990s a much bigger combined and multifaceted thrust has come from more NGOs, governmental and semi-governmental agencies, universities and businesses to research, educate and disseminate renewable energy systems around the country. Among the major contributors to this thrust are Grameen Shakti, BRAC, Rahimafrooz Solar, Bangladesh Power Development Board (BPDB), Rural Electrification Board (REB), Local Government Engineering Department (LGED), Thengamara Mohila Shabuj Shangha (TMSS), Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS), COAST Trust, Centre for Mass Education in Science (CMES), Srijony Bangladesh, BAPA (Bangladesh Poribesh Andolan), Bangladesh Institute of Fuel Research and Development of BCSIR, Renewable Energy Research Centre of the Department of Applied Physics, Electronics and Communication Engineering at Dhaka University, the Center for Energy Studies at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), Shidhulai Swarnivar Sangstha, and Bangladesh Bank. Infrastructure Development Company Limited (IDCOL), under the Rural Electrification and Renewable Energy Development Project (REREDP), with funding from the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), IDA of the World Bank, KfW and GTZ, promotes Solar Home Systems (SHSs) through numerous partner organisations (POs), which are included in the above list.  IDCOL plans to install 10 lakh solar home systems by 2012.

The economic, technological and environmental advantages of photovoltaics, biogas and solar cookers have been well proven in Bangladesh. To date, there are more than 500,000 installed stand-alone PV systems, generating over 25 megawatts of power. A typical 40-watt solar home system comes with three eight-watt fluorescent lights, a deep cycle battery, and a charge controller. The cost, around Tk 22,500 (about $320), includes installation and warranty. The solar module comes with a warranty of 20 years, and the battery, five years (with an expected life of 8-10 years and recycling options). The system also comes with the options of powering a small TV and charging cell phones. Such a system can save around Tk 400 per month spent on kerosene. When the upfront payment is too high, micro-credit financing makes it affordable. There are also over 17,000 mostly home-scale, biogas plants in Bangladesh, installed by the Fuel Research Institute of BCSIR, BRAC, Grameen Shakti, and some other NGOs and private entrepreneurs. Although there are only a few installations, pilot projects with wind turbines, micro hydros, and grid-connected PV systems show great promise.

A renewable energy infrastructure is evolving. It’s time to build upon it on a massive scale. Stand-alone PV systems are already proven to be the most cost effective way to generate electricity in areas outside the grid. 70 percent of the land area in Bangladesh lies outside the grid. Even in some areas with the grid, the actual electricity supply is unreliable and negligible, if not nil. PV systems can be installed with a variety of designs and scales. Such expansion must also include recycling options of the system components. Batteries, for example, contain toxic elements, and improper disposal of used batteries is harmful to health and the environment. It is highly commendable that Rahimafrooz, the largest seller of batteries for cars and solar systems in Bangladesh, became one of the first businesses in the world to institute a recycling program for used batteries.

There are many other options in addition to stand-alone PV systems: Hybrid systems combining PV and wind turbines or ecologically balanced hydroelectric systems; distributed generation through grid-connected PV systems for urban and other gridded areas, installed on roofs and walls, which feed the grid with solar-generated electricity, ‘turn the meter backwards’ and reduce stress on the power line; solar powered IPS systems; solar thermal systems for heating and cooling; solar greenhouses; various types of solar cookers; wind turbines ranging in size from 250 watts to over five megawatts each – with cut-in wind speed as low as seven miles/hour and cut-out speed as high as 120 miles/hour; utility-scale, megawatts-size wind farms and PV fields, some combining electricity generation, grazing and agricultural production – a critical advantage especially for Bangladesh where land scarcity is a major factor; offshore wind farms; industrial and community scale biogas plants generating gas and electricity, with superb quality organic fertilizer and fish feed as by-products; large dish-type concentrators which both cook and produce steam to power electricity generators; and PV, wind turbine and other renewable energy technology hardware manufacturing plants through turnkey transfer. All these options have successful examples around the world, for Bangladesh to judiciously emulate and innovate. All these can be done far more expediently than building conventional energy plants – both as short-term and long-term energy, economic, environmental and political solutions. These will also come with a revolutionary potential for ‘green jobs’ creation and employment, fuelling an energy-independent and sustainable economy.

Some of these options have been tested as pilot projects in Bangladesh. In 1999, BRAC Solar Energy Program installed a PV-wind hybrid system at the BRAC Area Office in Cox’s Bazar. The program also installed two grid-connected systems, one at BRAC’s Training and Resource Centre in Mymensingh (1200 watts), and another at its area office at Madhabdi.  These pilot systems have contributed much valuable data on their feasibility and constraints. Also, a 1.1 kilowatt grid-connected rooftop PV system has been installed in 2007 at the Renewable Energy Research Centre, Dhaka University, by a team of faculty members and research associates of the University’s Department of Applied Physics, Electronics and Communications Engineering. These systems take only a few days to install. They are simple, reliable and durable. With political will, policy, planning, investment, programs and action, hundreds of thousands of building roofs across the country could be urgently transformed into grid-connected electricity generating power plants, launching an instant pay-back period and a downward cost curve – transforming into a revenue curve. Mandating the use of renewables in building codes would not only facilitate the transition, it would also add a whole new revolutionary and sustainability dimension to the architectural, engineering, and building-construction education and professions.

Facilitating the urban utilisation of renewable energy, several Solar-Hybrid IPS systems have been installed in Dhaka. These are located at the BCSIR Chairman Dr Imamul Haque’s office, The BUET professor of petroleum department and former energy advisor during the caretaker government M Tamin’s residence, the coordinator of the Renewable Energy Research Centre of Dhaka University and secretary of the Bangladesh Solar Energy Society Dr Saiful Haque’s residence, and at ‘Sanjher Maya,’ the family residence of poet Sufia Kamal. Also, about one hundred electric three-wheelers have been fitted with solar panels for charging batteries during daytime – as an initiative to cut down on conventional fuel consumption and reduce greenhouse gas production and pollution due to transportation. Taking another major step, on April 30, 2010, the country’s first solar panel assembling plant was inaugurated in Savar. Set up by local company Electro Solar Power Ltd (ESPL), the plant with a production capacity of 10-megawatt electricity a year, will also assemble charge controllers, batteries and other components for solar home systems.

The government has instituted a policy to meet five percent of the country’s total electricity demand by 2015 and 10 percent by 2020 from renewables. Demonstrating the government’s commitment to encourage the use of renewable energy, a 21.6 kilowatts peak capacity PV system was installed at the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) in November, 2009. According to Power Development Board (PDB) officials, this initiative is ‘only the beginning for a quick expansion of renewable energy technology to other government and semi-government offices.’

Bangladesh Bank has installed a 20-kilowatt stand-alone PV system on the roof of its main building in Motijheel, Dhaka. It lights an entire floor of the multi-storey building. A plan is under way to replace the fluorescent lights currently powered by the system with LED lights, thereby significantly increasing the powering capacity of the system, as well as utilising an environmentally preferable option. Under the direction of its Governor, Dr Atiur Rahman – whose own office room is lighted by solar – the Bank has also established a Tk 200 crores Renewable Energy Refinancing Fund. The fund lends money to commercial banks at the low annual interest rate of 5 per cent. In turn, the banks give out loans dedicated to financing renewable energy systems to individuals, NGOs, companies and other delivery agents at an interest rate of around 8 per cent. The fund is enabling NGOs and other organisations nationwide to launch their own renewable energy programs with financing options for the borrowers, helping overcome two of the major barriers to a widespread dissemination of renewable systems: high upfront cost of purchasing a solar system and higher interest rates of loans from other sources. Also commendable is the installation of a huge sign on the roof-level frontal wall of the building, highly visible from the heavily travelled street underneath, boldly proclaiming: ‘SOLAR POWER SOLUTION.’

Policy-programs-practice: prospect into action

The highly commendable initiatives are laying a foundation upon which the trend must be urgently expedited. To make a full transition to a renewable energy path requires more. A Policy-Programs-Practice continuum (PPP) must be conceived and implemented. Applicable to every country in the world, including Bangladesh, and conjoining ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ approaches, it will require the following:

One, maximising conservation and efficiency in the use of non-renewables, while utilising them only as transitional resources; two, transparent, equitable, and socially and environmentally responsible public-private partnerships to maximize efficiency and expediency; three, a moratorium on further entrenchment into the non-renewable path, combined with disincentives such as a reduction of subsidies for non-renewables and a progressive carbon tax and cap on carbon production; four, proactive and massive utilization, investment and development of appropriate renewable options; five, a combined offering of public education, technical support, a legal framework and financial incentives (such as Feed-in-Tariff) to renewable energy users and producers; and six, collaboration between experts and stakeholders in both non-renewable and renewable energy fields to devise an integrated and comprehensive public policy – holistically assessing both the non-renewable and renewable options, from both global and local perspectives – to lead the transition through action.

Transition to a renewable energy path may seem like a daunting – even revolutionary – task.  But insisting on the non-renewable energy path that has led Bangladesh – and the world – to the crisis we are in is not a solution; it is suicidal. On the other hand, the revolutionary prospect of renewable energy offers us another choice, a hope, a one-time opportunity to pave a path towards a solution. Bangladesh is capable of achieving the ‘impossible.’ Against all odds and formidable opposition, the Liberation War proved it. An essential meaning and realisation of that blood-drenched liberation is now to be found in Bangladesh’s claim, commitment and achievement of her energy independence and sustainability. The task amounts to nothing less than a national task with the utmost urgency – and a call to action – now!

Sajed Kamal, EdD, teaches at the Sustainable International Development Program at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, USA.

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