Where is Bangladesh in the global race towards renewable energy?

Originally posted in Daily Star on 13 April 2023

The last two years have been exciting for the renewable energy sector, as the energy market turmoil stoked by recent events, like the Russia-Ukraine war, gave an impetus for an accelerated green transition.

For example, 2021 saw the largest annual capacity additions worth 175 gigawatts (GW) of solar photovoltaic power, bringing the total global solar PV capacity to 942 GW. Developing countries led this rapid transition, with China leading the race by adding the highest annual amount of solar power capacity, while India and Brazil ranked among the top five countries.

Our neighbour India has moved ahead with ambitious renewable energy goals. It has targeted to source half of its energy from renewable sources by 2030. The Indian government adopted the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission in 2010 with the goal of achieving a projected 20 GW by 2022. However, India accelerated its transition and as of early 2023, the country has already raised its installed solar capacity to 64 GW. In short, India surpassed and upgraded its renewable energy ambitions in the last one decade. Not only India, but the world is also headed towards renewables. Since 2013, renewables are surpassing conventional power generation in terms of new capacity additions. In 2022, renewables formed 84 percent of all new power plants.

Bangladesh, which is graduating to the status of a developing country, must take note of the recent progress by other countries and revisit its own progress and vision for renewable energy deployment. The country has demonstrated its ability to bring transformative changes by enhancing overall power generation capacity and ensuring access to power for the entire population. The energy mix, however, remains heavily dominated by fossil fuels.

Bangladesh’s renewable energy policy of 2008 set the goal of 10 percent total electricity generation from renewable sources by 2020. However as of 2022, we have managed to get only three percent of the power from renewable energy sources, including off-grid solar home systems. This is unsustainable in the coming years due to several factors.

The nation’s existing natural gas reserves are inadequate for meeting the estimated growth in energy needs given the expected GDP growth in the coming decades. Import of fossil fuels like liquefied natural gas has been increasing, but LNG bought in the international spot market can be costly, owing to its fluctuating price and growing competition from importers like Europe and other Asian countries.

In 2021, the government took the commendable step of canceling 10 coal power plants that were under consideration, which were meant to run on imported coal. Expanding domestic coal extraction is not viable due to social considerations. According to the draft integrated energy and power master plan (IEPMP) being prepared by the government, coal plants under construction may increase the share of coal in the energy mix in the near-term, but eventually coal’s share will be cut back. Even with ultra-super critical technology, coal remains a high-emission option that cannot be adopted as the main source of energy.

Whether it comes to LNG or imported coal, recent events in the last two years, such as the depreciation of Taka against US dollar and price fluctuations in international energy market illustrate the risks of inflation and debt burden that a heavily import-dependent energy mix poses for Bangladesh. This led to a situation where despite having a surplus installed power generation capacity, we could not supply electricity, as we were unable to buy fuel at a high price. In 2021, Bangladesh has provided subsidies of around USD seven billion to the energy sector, which is around six percent of the country’s GDP (IEA, 2023).

Yet, Bangladesh made its mark in spearheading climate action among developing countries. The country has pledged to increase the share of renewable energy under the Paris climate agreement. The government has also approved the Mujib Climate Prosperity Plan in February 2023, that vows to take mitigation measures. Bangladesh could realise its vision for sustainability by making a timely shift to renewable energy without undue delay.

For a green energy transition, Bangladesh needs ambitious goals and smart strategies. The IEPMP makes some affirmative assertions about promoting clean energy in Bangladesh and brings the target of 40 percent clean energy by 2041 to the forefront. But actual targets about attaining renewables remain vague. The plan names hydrogen or ammonia as potential clean energy sources, but these technologies still remain unproven.

Solar and wind are proven as high-potential renewable energy sources for Bangladesh. There are varying estimates of potential solar power generation, but setting up solar panels in industrial rooftops and fallow and unused land could enable us to generate more than 20,000 MW of solar power without harming agricultural production. Moreover, after years, Bangladesh has finally started to build wind energy plants. A 60 MW wind park at Cox’s Bazar is expected to connect to the grid by the second half of this year and construction of another 55 MW wind park is expected to start soon at Mongla. Bangladesh has also started a feasibility study for exploring the potential of offshore wind energy. The demonstration of success with the initial wind projects could open the door for considerable expansion of wind energy capacity.

As practitioners, we recognise that renewable energy sources available in Bangladesh have high variability in relation to base load. However, such shortcomings of renewables are being increasingly mitigated by up-and-coming, increasingly affordable technology solutions. The concerns about limited availability of sunlight for a few hours of the day could be addressed by better storage technology, an area that merits more policy attention.

We have proven that with the right vision and political will, we can bring transformative change in our development scenarios, including in the power sector. Now we need to have a strong commitment to make a decisive shift to renewable energy – in line with the global trend on evidence-based analysis and prudent, coordinated implementation.