All his life, farmer Nasiruddin saw his poverty ridden village in complete darkness after dusk, with electricity being a distant dream. That changed last year when he installed a solar lantern system.
“Life used to stop here after sundown,” he says, “Kerosene lamps were expensive. My children studied in candle light with a lot of difficulty, and we couldn't do any work properly at night. But now solar power has changed all that.”
Nasiruddin's case is emblematic of that of millions of Bangladeshis living in underdeveloped areas of the country, such as the enclave in which he lives, most of which don't have electric grids. The energy starved nation faces significant challenges to achieve its vision of universal electricity access by 2021 by relying only on grid power development. The dispersed nature of rural settlements and the numerous rivers that crisscross Bangladesh make grid electrification difficult and expensive. It is also environmentally unsustainable, as it is primarily dependent on fossil fuels, which exacerbate global warming.
In recognition of these challenges, the government promoted the development of off-grid renewable energy schemes as one of the viable near-to-medium-term options to provide electricity for millions of households in the remote areas of the country. And development organisations have got onboard. Some organisations, including the UNDP through their Sustainable Renerwable Energy for Power Generation (SREPGEN) project of which Nasiruddin is a beneficiary, provide solar lanterns to those who do not have grid connection in rural areas and cannot afford solar home system, with a portion of grant via partner organisations. The aim here is to reduce the annual growth rate of GHG emissions from fossil fuel-fired power generation by exploiting Bangladesh's renewable energy resources for electricity generation.
Measures to promote renewable energy investment can be expected to improve energy security, generate employment and serve as a cost-effective GHG emission reduction option. In recognition of this fact, the government has set up the Sustainable and Renewable Energy Development Authority (SREDA) to develop policies for renewable energy and energy efficiency programmes, and to mobilise resources for such programmes in Bangladesh. But the renewables landscape is still riddled with challenges. Organisations assert that solar energy is costly, and the components being imported have high duties. Currently the high tariffs are driving up the cost of equipment such as solar lanterns, rendering them unaffordable for many without external financial assistance. To counter this challenge, however, some organisations, like the Infrastructure Development Company Limited (IDCOL), are developing their capacity to lobby for renewable energy investment incentives such as duty free import of renewables' equipment and tax holidays for investors.
While solar data is considered to be adequate for current purposes, datasets for wind and biomass resources do not have sufficient geographic coverage or volume to induce investment decisions. The available data sets are also not compiled in user-friendly formats, and there is no central repository of renewable energy information. Moreover, access to these data is difficult, as it requires contacts with various government departments, discouraging potential renewable energy developers and investors.
Moreover, as one of the most densely populated nations of the world, land is a scarce commodity in Bangladesh. Disputes exist regarding land ownership in different parts of the country, which makes installation and scaling up of solar photovoltaic difficult, according to Saiful Alam, Director of Dhaka University's Energy Institute. However, he thinks an easy solution exists for this problem – rooftops. “We may have land scarcity but we have plenty of rooftops, enough to produce 3000 megawatts, and we are trying to convince the government to do so,” he says.
After the historic Paris climate agreement last year, the world received a clear signal – the fossil fuel era is over. An energy transition is needed for all nations, which leaves coal, gas and oil in the ground and leads to a 100 percent renewable energy powered world. Developing nations such as Bangladesh that have escalating energy needs should lay the framework now for sustainable development.
With that aim, civil society organisations and climate conscious people are mobilising around the world as part of the Break Free campaign, urging governments and corporations to phase out fossil fuels and phase in renewable energy. In line with the campaign, SUPRO - a national network of grassroots NGOs in Bangladesh - formed a human chain on May 14 around the National Press Club to bring to the attention of media and people on the ground the need to protect climate policying from big polluters.
Pressure is mounting on all governments, including those of developing nations such as Bangladesh, to develop a credible plan to end their dependence on fossil fuels and decarbonise their economies in favour of renewable energy, in line with their COP 21 pledges. And this necessitates effective government action and international assistance to overcome the obstacles in the path to proliferation of renewable energy.
The writer is a development professional working at UNDP Bangladesh on Climate Change, Environment and Disaster Management issues.