Boosting the use of solar power  

Wasi Ahmed     | Published: March 27, 2018 21:21:04 | Updated: March 28, 2018 20:56:50


A news item published recently in the FE reports the launching of the International Solar Alliance (ISA) aimed at building a network to help tropical countries boost their use of solar power. No doubt an initiative well taken, this is going to help many countries to meet their grid power deficit through increased application of solar devices for meeting mounting home and industrial demands. As for Bangladesh, one of the leading countries to make the best of solar energy, especially through rooftop solar power, the country can benefit immensely from the ISA initiative in applying innovative devices at affordable costs. 

Bangladesh is already a big name in the use of Solar Home Systems (SHS) -- an important segment of renewable energy, which has been acclaimed as the largest off-grid renewable energy programme in the world. According to a report of the Paris-based energy think tank REN21, as of 2016, more than 6.0 million SHS and kits were in operation worldwide, with 25 million people benefiting from them. Bangladesh, the largest SHS market worldwide, has more than 4.0 million units installed.

This indeed is laudable. Infrastructure Development Company Ltd (IDCOL) Bangladesh, the focal point in this regard, commenced its SHS programme in early 2003 to meet basic electricity needs of the off-grid rural people as well as supplement the government's vision of ensuring access to electricity for all citizens by 2021. As per latest data, 4.6 million SHSs were installed under the programme in the remote areas where electrification through gird expansion is challenging and costly. This way, the programme ensured supply of solar electricity to 21 million people i.e., more than 12 per cent of the country's total population who previously used kerosene lamps for lighting purpose. IDCOL has a target to finance 6.0 million SHS by 2021 with an estimated generation capacity of 220 MW of electricity. The multi-donor funded programme has proved highly beneficial, especially in the far-flung off-grid locations, including among others the char areas where grid connectivity is too remote a dream for people. As per the energy and power ministry data, currently, 2.86 per cent of all power generated in the country comes from renewable energy, including solar power.

The government has set a target to generate 2,000 MW of electricity from renewable energy by 2021, of which more than 1,600 MW will be produced from solar energy. It is estimated that more than 400 MW of electricity can be produced from the textile industries' rooftops and there is a potential of producing about 4,000 MW of electricity from industrial and commercial rooftops. IDCOL has 30 solar rooftop projects in its pipeline with a cumulative capacity of 30 MW and it intends to finance solar rooftop projects to generate 1,000 MW.

With the momentum on, SHS is highly likely to reach out to an increasing number of the population in the near future. Currently, the country has around 38 per cent of the population without access to electricity. With grid connectivity growing as a result of the newly installed power stations, a sizeable population in remote areas will still remain off-grid. This is where SHS are to fill in the gap.

The reason why SHS, especially rooftop solar power is able to attract off-grid consumers is its cheaper unit cost compared to that of grid power. The aforementioned FE report says that it requires only 100 Sq.ft. space and about Tk 75,000 to generate 1.0 KW of electricity. The unit cost of electricity from rooftop solar is well below Tk 8.0/unit, that too without any government subsidy. On the other hand the flat rate of electricity, despite subsidy, is far higher.

Under the prevailing situation, there is definite logic to help expand the SHS market in the country. With the mechanism in place and benefits visible, it's only a matter of time to see the benefits flourish. In this context, the decision of the government to withdraw 10 per cent import duty on solar panels proposed in the 2017-18 national budget is appreciable.

However, there seems to be a lack of harmony in imports and local production. The local manufacturers want a considerable gap in import pricing through import duties so that investment made in the sector can be secured. There is thus the need to assess the ground reality, especially the domestic manufacturers' capacity to meet the growing demand as well as the quality of their products. To be able to facilitate more off-grid population, the authorities will have to interact with all stakeholders to strike a fine balance between import and local production of panels and other necessary solar kits.

There is another issue to attend to. In urban locations, particularly in the big cities like Dhaka, Chittagong and Sylhet, a good number of the SHS have reportedly been found to be either inoperative or producing less than optimum service -- due mainly to lack of proper maintenance. There is thus the need to create awareness among consumers about regular maintenance which mainly means cleaning the solar panels. 

Given the circumstances, the launch of the ISA can be made truly meaningful if countries using solar devices on a large scale like Bangladesh are provided with supportive programmes to strengthen their existing activities as well as initiate newer ones on a sustained basis. 

wasiahmed.bd@gmail.com

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