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Special Feature

The Cost of Green Solutions

Samya Kullab

Dr M S Islam places four black almond sized seeds on his desk, “Jatropa” he says, adding with an air of immense satisfaction, “I even have the plant in my house.” Aside from pleasing horticultural fancies there is another reason why Dr. Islam is so eager to cultivate this seed. For one thing, 30-40 percent of it is made of pure oil and can be used as fuel, for example to light stoves used for cooking. Secondly as Head of the Department of International Cooperation and Development for Grameen Shakti it is precisely the kind of resource that Dr. Islam is seeking out to promote Grameen Shakti's energy efficient philosophy in Bangladesh.

So, are these seeds going to save Bangladesh's power woes?

Solar technologies can provide electricity to millions of rural inhabitants excluded from the National Grid

Not quite. But renewable energies like biofeul that a jatropa seed can produce is one method, that is switching to renewable resources to ease demand for grid provided electricity.

It is the rural areas where approximately 75% of the total population live, that are already experiencing the benefits of renewable energy sources. Of the 145 million people residing in rural areas only 20 percent have access to electricity.

Places like the Jhenaihah District have changed drastically since photovoltaic cells, a device that converts sunlight into electricity, were put in place. The UNDP has identified market centres like Gangutia in Jhenaihah as key growth centres. There are nearly 2100 rural markets that can be categorised as such. Many of these rural markets are located in areas not connected to the national grid. As a result, shops are usually closed by sunset.

To increase business hours the Local Government Engineering Department (LGED) teamed up with UNDP to install a 1.8 KW solar photovoltaic power generation unit in Gangutia. The system powered 45 shops, three food-processing industries and one community centre. This particular module was designed so that in bad weather conditions electricity will be available for three days.

As a result of longer business hours the lease value of the Gangutia market centre has increased by 65 percent in just one year. Income for the farmers has also increased by 45 percent. In addition, cultural activities and education activities started to take place in the community centre. Some recipients of the PV system also gained access to information with television and the radio.

It is also important to point out that villagers themselves were partly financially responsible for their own economic success. Financial resources to manage the project were shared with participants who contributed to 30 percent of land costs at a very reasonable price. Just four Takas a day is sufficient to cover lighting and routine maintenance.

Grameen Shakti (GS) has been prolific in disseminating the PV system for its solar home system programme. This particular project brings electricity to rural households, and usually has the capacity to power two light bulbs and a black-and-white television set. The scheme is advantageous because the user becomes the owner of his or her own electric supply system that is both environmentally friendly, hazard free and does not require monthly payments.

Currently, the solar home system has been placed in over 32,000 villages and counts over 1,200,000 people as beneficiaries. GS hopes to install 1 million systems by 2012.

As encouraging as these numbers may sound however, putting this programme into place is not without barriers. The average price of a solar home system is about Tk.25,000. There are cheaper and smaller versions starting from Tk. 9,000 providing about 10 Watts of electricity. Users are expected to pay a 15 percent down payment and the rest in monthly installments in a 1-2 year time period. Of the 75,050 trained users, about 41,000 of them can claim full ownership of their supplies.

Though the initial financial cost of the enterprise may be a discouraging factor, Erich Otto Gomm, Programme Coordinator for Sustainable Energy for Development from the German Technical Cooperation (GTZ) maintains that the benefits by far outweigh the costs. “A SHS system will last for over twenty years, so in the long run, after the first two years of paying off the micro credit loan, you are actually starting to save money.”

Although projects sponsored by Grameen Shakti and the UNDP with the support of GTZ have been successful in many ways, green solutions like the SHS and others have not yet been fully integrated into mainstream markets. But this may change, as the price of conventional fuels rise; renewable options like solar power that were once thought to be too expensive are starting to be competitive substitutes. If price trends continue in this direction, theoretically there will be more incentive to develop more renewable resources. This means that one day, Dr. Islam's precious jatropa may very well be someone's fuel of choice.

Other renewable resources like wind and hydroelectricity have limited scope in Bangladesh but are nonetheless being explored.

Wind power for example, can only be harnessed in the coastal areas. Currently there are wind-mapping projects being carried out by Grameen Shakti in St. Martin's Island and two more wind-monitoring systems are being planned in Chokoria and Meghnaghat. There is much power generated by higher wind speed but much of this energy comes in short bursts. A common criticism of this source is that it cannot provide a consistent output like fuel power can. This means that utilities that use wind must provide backup generation for times that wind is weak. To make wind power more consistent may require storage technologies to retain the large amount of power generated for later use. This may end up costing more.

Hydroelectricity is the most widely used form of renewable energy in the world, comprising 19 percent of world energy intake. Though some experts maintain that there is no latitude in the future for large hydro projects, Aminul Islam, Assistant Country Director, Environment and Sustainable Development, UNDP, contends that small hydro projects are a feasible option for the mountainous parts of the country like Chittagong. A small hydro plant produces somewhere between 10MW to 30MW of electricity enough to support the needs of a small community or household. Small plants are an attractive option for Bangladesh because building them does not require the economic, engineering and environmental research associated with large plants.

Indeed small hydro schemes are popular in China, which has 50 percent of the world's small hydro capacity.

However though the future of renewable energy use is promising in Bangladesh, it is not enough. Recent studies by the UNDP have shown that for Bangladesh to maintain a 5.2 percent growth rate, the energy supply must increase by 7 percent per year. Meeting this requirement means installing large facilities capable of producing upwards of 1000 MW. Switching to clean fuel in a large scale is not a feasible option for Bangladesh because at the moment cleaner alternatives are still very expensive.

Professor Ijaz Hossain of BUET asserts that Bangladesh has the resources and does not need to venture outside the territory to import them. “Here we have gas, here we have coal but we are not extracting them. It is not an issue of having these resources but how to utilise them,” He explains.

Back in the mid-90's it was estimated by a USGS study that 50 percent of Bangladesh's natural gas reserves were yet to be discovered. Later the coal company Asia Energy found exploitable coal reserves. Since these findings not one Tcf (trillion cubic feet) has been added to the current energy capacity and no serious attempt to survey untapped resources has been carried out due to financial constraints. Resources have remained static since 1998 numbers and that is partly why the country is experiencing a deficit.

Other energy saving practices can also be adopted by residential areas. For example, the Power Division has estimated that about 445 MW can be saved by replacing all present incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent lamps (CFL's).

There is however another option, one that Prof. Hossain describes as “a huge headache” but admits, “the time will come in twenty years, that even if it is a headache, we've got to take that headache on.”

He is referring to Nuclear Power.

Investment for nuclear power plants has been driven recently by the rising price of fossil fuels. Today, France is considered an exemplary model for what a successful nuclear programme should look like. Back in 1974, after the first oil shock, the French government decided to expand nuclear power capacity. At the time France had considerable engineering expertise and no indigenous resources. Also, it was believed that there was no way renewables and energy conservation measures could compete with nuclear energy in the future. France paid nearly 400 billion (using 1993 currency) for its very first nuclear power plant. Half the fee was self financed, 8 percent was invested by the state and 42 percent was paid with loans.

The reason setting up a nuclear power plant is expensive because the initial capital costs are enormous. However once this phase is over with, since the cost of uranium is so cheap, running the plant is not as expensive. Moreover, after the first nuclear power plant, capital costs for any subsequent plants are cheaper, as in the case of South Korea.

Prof. Hossain maintains that for Bangladesh to be powered by nuclear energy within the next ten years, “you must have a high amount of money, large upfront capital investment and second the ability to manage everything. We don't have either. We don't have the technology to run it, and we don't have any ways of managing the waste. So from top to bottom, everything has to be imported.”

Shafiqul Islam Bhuiyan, Chairman of the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission, the sole nuclear research institute in the country thinks otherwise, “Bangladesh has the infrastructure, has the capacity, has the manpower for the implementation phase,” he says, “this is the judgment of the International Atomic Energy Agency.”

“The only manpower we need is for operational maintenance during the construction phase.” He adds.

According to Bhuiyan, a site safety report has already been given to the IAEA. The site in mind Rooppur, is with 292 acres of land and without constraints a fully operational nuclear power plant can be expected by 2017.

But there are external constraints. “Technically, we'll say that we are almost sound.” says the Chairman, “the most important thing is money.”

For Bangladesh it is estimated that to produce one Megawatt of electricity in a nuclear power plant one would have to pay $1.5-2 million dollars (US). To produce more that 100 MW means paying more than 2 billion dollars or more.

The Chairman is nevertheless, confident: “there are a number of friendly countries who are considering financing us for this project.” Though he admits that the Commission has received, “letters, not exactly proposals”.

How exactly this project is to be funded remains a question left unanswered. At least for now Aminul Islam from the UNDP is convinced that going nuclear will be the only feasible long term solution to the present crisis, “the energy demand is jumping, renewables can take care of small things, but not big industry. To maintain the economic boom huge resources are needed and nuclear is the only solution.”

But Prof Hossain warns, “What people don't realise is that uranium is not a renewable resource. If everybody turned nuclear, we would only have reserves to last the next 30 years or so.”

The main obstacles identified by every expert consulted for this article has been a lack of public awareness and government support of activities that promote energy efficiency and the use of renewable resources.

“We have many success stories,” says Aminul Islam, “But after a project is finished we expect it to be replicated by the government into mainstream activities. But this has never been seen. The initiative has not been taken by the government or the private sector.”

“We need institutions to spearhead these activities,” says Gomm. “You may need a National Policy to do this.”

Finding the current National Energy Policy outdated, the Ministry of Power, Energy and Mineral Resources approached GTZ to help draft the next energy policy, which according to Gomm is circulating ministries for approval.

Photovoltaic cells convert sunlight into electricity and can power households and small communities

The new policy emphasises market penetration of energy resources to lighten the burdensome price of living with subsidies.

There are other things our government can do to create public awareness of energy saving appliances, like CFLs (Compact Fluorescent Lamps) for instance. Prof. Hossain points to a recent programme in Indonesia where the government, realising that cost was a discouraging factor, gave away CFL's for free.

“Because the Indonesian government goes with the principle that it is better to save 1 kilowatt of energy than to generate 1 kilowatt of energy.”

Generating more energy and conserving more energy essentially yields the same result. Fundamentally a mind set change is in order to better Bangladesh's present energy quandary.


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