Choosing an ideal energy mix

Farhana Sharmin | Published: September 01, 2018 20:59:33 | Updated: September 04, 2018 21:38:58

Uninterrupted energy supply is a precondition for achieving the ambitious development goals as set in Vision 2021, Vision 2030 and Vision 2041. Environmentally, Bangladesh is the most vulnerable country in the world to climate change. The country, therefore, needs to adopt alternative energy to fight climate change. But, instead, it is starting new fossil fuel projects for lowering the electricity price.

It is not, however, possible to shift overnight to 100 per cent clean energy, nor can Bangladesh depend on any single source for energy. However, the current shortage and constraint in the availability of harvestable fossil fuels lead to the exploration of newer energy sources.

Although there is a sizeable gas stock in Bangladesh, this reserve will dry up by 2031 (S&P Global Platts, 2013) if the current extraction rate continues. The Power Sector Master Plan (PSTM 2010) targets above 50 per cent of total generation from coal sector (21.71 per cent from imported and 29.07 per cent from domestic coal) by 2021. However, principal barriers to such operation are technical difficulties and non-environment friendly method. So environmentally and economically, we have two options for feasible alternative source -- nuclear energy and renewable energy.

Nuclear energy is still a newborn idea in Bangladesh. The only project is the proposed Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant (RNPP), with dual stations (1,200 MW--3,000 MW). Despite not being a renewable energy source, it can be considered a clean source as it doesn't cause harmful carbon emission. For indefinite quantity of power supply, it is extremely affordable as well. Although the installation cost is projected to be worth a budget overrun ($12.65 billion excluding 4.0 per cent interest rate), it is also high in risk profile in terms of technical complexity, maintenance and proper management of the radioactive waste. Also, the currently proposed RNPP will not still be operable before 2022.

Nuclear energy, therefore, is not an immediate answer to the country's secondary energy source -- at least not for another five years. So, the remaining choice is renewable energy. Till now, the most popular renewable sources in Bangladesh are solar, wind, biogas and hydroelectric power.

Karnaphuli Power Station is the only hydroelectric power plant in Bangladesh generating 230 MW of electricity. A Power Cell-supervised study suggests two other plants from this area: the Sangu River (Potential capacity 58.33 MW) and the Matamuhuri (Potential capacity 20.83MW). Meanwhile, the government has a plan to invest $1.0 billion to install a hydro-electricity power company. Wind energy has also made some inroads, but its potential is mainly in coastal areas and offshore islands with strong wind regimes. Presently, there are 2.0 MW of installed wind turbines at Feni and Kutubdia. Another 50-200 MW at Parky Beach is under consideration. Another promising renewable energy resources for Bangladesh can be Biogas mainly from animal and municipal wastes. At present, there are tens of thousands of households and village-level biogas plants in place throughout the country.

The most promising renewable source can be the solar energy. With an ambitious plan of being the world's 'first solar nation' (Nuclear Engineering International, 2015), the government has established the Sustainable and Renewable Energy Development Authority (SREDA) to promote the use of renewable sources.

Infrastructure Development Company Limited (IDCOL) initiated Solar Home System (SHS) programme in 2003 and it installed solar power till 2016 in 4.5 million households -- reaching 18 million people with over 2.9 million household-level installations having a capacity of 122.2 MW. Through this SHS programme, the government targets to achieve 'Vision 2021' with 1.7 GW of solar capacity. In 2013, Bangladesh was ranked with the sixth-largest renewable energy-related workforce in the world with 114,000 jobs. Other renewable energy sources here include bio-fuels, gasohol, geothermal, river current, wave and tidal energy and potentialities of these sources are yet to be explored.

But transition is not easy. It is difficult for Bangladesh to implement grid-connected solar system as it will create disturbance in the current network of PGCB (Power Grid Company of Bangladesh) because of the unpredictability of the power, battery replacement issues. Scarcity of land is another major obstacle for both solar and wind power plants. Hence, a trade-off between land for cultivable crop and RE plants is a critical decision for the government. But utilisation of lands through high rise construction or building floating spaces (Inspired from Southeast Asian regions) can be possible with proper administrative planning.

The cost for renewable energy has reached a historical low lately, which used to be considered too pricy. A recent report from International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) shows that per megawatt installation cost as well as per unit power generation cost has declined both in case of solar and wind power. The installation cost of solar power plant with 1.0 MW capacity used to be BDT 350 million in 2010. But now it has reduced to BDT 110 million. Currently, per unit production cost of solar and wind electricity is lower than BDT 3.5. The cost of battery is also declining at an average of 14 per cent per year and projected to come down even more.

But as the price of solar system is declining rapidly, private companies are taking advantage of the absence of government regulation on price by charging the rural users more than BDT 30 for each unit of electricity, while the urban users pay almost 5.0 times lesser.

Of late, Bangladesh Power Development Board (BPDB) has approved projects of a number of private companies raising solar power capacity from 30 MW to 200 MW. These long-term contracts are presumably done in a non-transparent way through which BPDB (Bangladesh Power Development Board) would have to continue to purchase each unit of solar electricity around BDT 12.00 for the next 20 years. In this way, the government will remain stuck with a fixed payment rate even when the price of solar-generated electricity comes remarkably down in near future.

The first world countries are experimenting with unorthodox forms of renewable energy for sustainable growth and eco-friendly potential. A developing country like Bangladesh should at least adopt the mainstream technologies of renewable energy. But infrastructural backwardness and lack of proper planning and regulations are the constraints on the path of exploring all the potentials. Now, combined efforts from public and private sectors can make things easier and viable. So, it is high time Bangladesh envisioned an ideal energy mix.

Farhana Sharmin is a researcher from the Bangladesh University of Engineering  and Technology (BUET).

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