I refer to the commentary by Dr. Sebastian Groh of Saturday 28 May, responding to my article, "Bringing Electricity to More Bangladeshis".
The point of my article was to highlight new findings from distinguished economists from the University of California, Berkeley, Asian Development Bank, and East-West University in Dhaka. Their research was commissioned by Copenhagen Consensus and BRAC to identify opportunities to get more energy and hence more opportunities for Bangladesh, as part of a broader project to identify a wide range of smart policy options for the country.
I pointed out in my article that research suggests that solar panels are not a bad investment – each taka will return almost two takas in social returns – but diesel generators could have higher returns, helping more Bangladeshis, for a lower cost.
Dr. Groh, the head of a solar consultancy company, dismisses such advice. I worry at any attempts to shut down policy discussion, because I think it's important for everyone -- from solar panel salespeople to farmers to the general public -- to talk about what works best.
My article pointed out that efforts to use solar lighting have been "seen as a remarkable development success". I noted that there are some technologies that could be better than solar home systems. I think it's unconstructive and over-the-top for Dr. Groh to equate this with "a public defamation of all efforts" to distribute solar in Bangladesh.
The specific research paper on lighting options for Bangladesh was written by A.K. Enamul Haque, Professor of Economics at the East-West University in Dhaka -- also a co-writer of the World Bank report on solar in Bangladesh. Professor Haque may wish to engage with Dr. Groh's technical disagreements.
However, broadly speaking, I would note that Dr. Groh appears not to have read the referenced academic papers that are freely available on the Bangladesh Priorities website.
He finds the academics' climate impact too small for his taste, and says it "raises the question of how these ... climate costs were actually calculated." It is made clear in the paper that these costs are calculated as the extra amount of CO₂ emitted multiplied by the social cost of carbon, as estimated by the biggest meta-study of all peer-reviewed estimates.
Dr. Groh takes issue with my point that money spent on solar electrification is money that can't be spent on diesel electrification. So much so that he quotes the entirety of my argument: "[g]iven that diesel is five times cheaper [than solar], all the money spent on solar energy for 3 million households could have powered 16 million households with diesel. Smarter spending could have helped 13 million more Bangladeshi households get power cheaper. This shows why it's crucial to study costs and benefits of alternative policies, rather than simply doing what seems to be in trend at the moment."
He then states that it is actually now 4 million households, not 3 million. I thank him for the update. However, I am surprised. Since my argument was a simply a comparison of impacts, Groh's larger number simply makes my argument stronger.
Instead of powering 4 million households with solar, the research by Professor Haque shows that we might have powered 21 million people with diesel – so Groh's correction means we could now have forgone helping 17 million Bangladeshis getting cheaper access to electricity.
Bangladesh Priorities has promoted a conversation at all levels on what works for Bangladesh -- and I welcome Dr. Groh's commentary as part of that. This discussion is taking place in the pages of The Daily Star as well as in the offices of ministries and policy think-tanks. It is including young people, a Nobel laureate economist, thought leaders, academics, NGOs, officials, and now a representative of the solar industry. It is very healthy to have such a robust discussion on the vital issue of Bangladesh's future.
Dr. Bjorn Lomborg