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Sluggish growth of renewables threatens Bangladesh’s clean-energy goals

A power plant under construction in Bangladesh.

A power plant under construction in Bangladesh. Image courtesy of Md. Sajjad Hossain Tuhin.

  • The development of renewable energy in Bangladesh continues to be outpaced by non-renewables such as coal, gas and nuclear.
  • This threatens the country’s ability to meet both its commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under the Paris Agreement, and its goal under the U.N. SDGs of ensuring that at least 10% of energy consumption by 2030 comes from renewable sources.
  • Renewables today account for just 2% of the power flowing into the grid, or 3.49% of total consumption if off-grid sources are included.
  • While the country is embarking on a spate of renewable energy projects, including one solar and four wind farms, these are overshadowed by the seven coal plants, 13 gas plants, and one — possibly two — nuclear plants in the works.

Bangladesh, a country of some 180 million people, has one of the smallest carbon footprints in the world. Its emissions reduction targets under the Paris Agreement are similarly modest: 5% by 2030 from the business-as-usual scenario, or 10% with assistance from the international community.

But even these goals, known as its nationally determined contribution (NDC), may be out of reach as the development of renewable energy in the country lags.

Most of the country’s emissions come from the energy sector, so to reduce emissions, the country plans to boost the share of renewable energy in the grid to 911.8 megawatts, from sources including solar, wind, hydro and biomass. With technical and financial assistance from other countries, the target figure goes up to 4,114.3 MW.

But setting a high target for the renewable energy share given the current state of the energy mix in the country is very ambitious and risky, said Mirza Monirul Qader, adjunct professor in the Department of Physical and Environmental Sciences at the University of Toronto.

According to the  Sustainable and Renewable Energy Development Agency (SREDA)  the total contribution of renewables to the national grid is 426.91 MW. The highest share of that, 230 MW, comes from the sole hydropower plant in the country, built in the 1960s. The second-highest share, 198 MW, share comes from solar sources. Off-grid, however, there’s 347 MW of solar power capacity, mostly in the form of small-scale household panels in rural areas and some roof-top urban settings.

Shares of other forms of renewable sources, like wind and biogas/biomass, are negligible and mostly off-grid.

Bangladesh remains heavily reliant on other energy sources to power its grid, including natural gas, coal, and furnace oil/diesel. According to the Bangladesh Power Development Board, all renewables combined make up only about 2% of the energy mix, compared to 67% for natural gas and 20% for furnace oil and diesel, with coal accounting for the rest.

Bhola power plant, Bangladesh. Bangladesh remains heavily reliant on other energy sources to power its grid, including natural gas, coal, and furnace oil/diesel. Image courtesy of Abu Siddique.

Lack of land for renewables

Though Bangladesh has taken various steps to boost the share of renewable energy, including implementing large-scale solar projects, most haven’t succeeded, for reasons including inadequate land.

Sunlight is abundant in Bangladesh, but in one of the most densely populated countries on Earth, available land isn’t. Farming alone occupies nearly three-fifths of the total area of this country that’s barely larger than New York state, according to the Bangladesh Ministry of Agriculture.

Siddique Zubair, a former SREDA official, said he believes the crisis of land availability might be resolved as current solar technologies require less land to generate the same amount of electricity. Where the previous standard was 1 MW per hectare of land, he said, the technology available today can produce as much in half the space.

“If the government is sticking with its plan with renewable energy, it could be implemented,” Zubair said. He added that if the government can allocate 650 hectares (1,600 acres) of land for a conventional power plant to produce a similar amount of power, then there’s no reason why it can’t allocate the same space for solar.

A power plant under construction in Bangladesh. Though Bangladesh has taken various steps to boost the share of renewable energy, most haven’t succeeded, for reasons including inadequate land. Image courtesy of Md. Sajjad Hossain Tuhin.

Overshadowed by non-renewables

To achieve its target, the government recently rolled out projects that include a 500 MW solar farm, 1 MW biomass plant running on municipal solid waste, and four wind farms.

At this rate, the absolute amount of clean energy in Bangladesh is set to increase, but its share of the national energy mix won’t.

That’s because Bangladesh is also at the same time embarking on several large-scale non-renewable power projects. These include coal, gas, liquified natural gas (LNG), and nuclear, which will increase the share of non-renewables in the energy mix.

There are currently two coal-fired power plants in operation, with combined installed capacity of 1,845 MW, and seven others under construction, with total capacity of 6,830 MW. A 1,200 MW nuclear power plant is also being built, expected to go online by 2025, and a second is under consideration.

Additionally, eight small-scale gas and LNG plants, with total capacity of 1,609 MW, are currently under construction. And five large-scale plants, with capacity of 8,750MW, are in the planning phase.

With all these new projects in the works, Bangladesh is on track to have about 40,000 MW installed capacity by 2030, according to Bangladesh Power Division. That’s nearly double the 23,000 MW installed capacity at present, and more than triple the 12,000 MW that’s actually generated today.

But that poses a conundrum for Bangladesh in achieving the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) for affordable and clean energy. Under this goal, known as SDG 7, Bangladesh has to increase its clean energy consumption to 10% by 2030. However, SREDA data show that the current energy consumption from clean sources, including off-grid ones, is only 3.49%.

Zubair said the target of meeting SDG 7 will be achieved when the NDC-declared target of 4,114.3 MW of renewable power is reached. And for that, Bangladesh will require additional financial and technical assistance from rich nations.

“We have formulated the document [NDC] based on the current scenarios and plans taken by different government bodies that are responsible for the issues,” said Mirza Showkat Ali, director for climate change in the Department of Environment under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.

“All the information is incorporated in the NDC after verifying the reality. So, it can be said that the plan could be achieved,” he added.

Banner image: A power plant under construction in Bangladesh. Image courtesy of Md. Sajjad Hossain Tuhin.

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