BANGLADESH: Solar Advocates See A Sunshine Nation

  • by Naimul Haq (dhaka)
  • Sunday, December 26, 2010
  • Inter Press Service

A drive to light up homes and businesses through solar energy has been picking up speed since 2007 and has no signs of slowing down. Indeed, M A Gofran, a pioneer in the field who has been working in renewable energy for the last three decades, says: 'The solar energy at households and for small businesses has grown as a silent revolution.'

That’s nothing short of a miracle in a country where more than 36 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Just 47 percent of Bangladesh’s 162.2 million people also live in households that are covered by the national grid.

Power shortage is most acute in the rural areas, where about 80 percent of Bangladeshis live, forcing people there to rely on kerosene lamps to light up their homes and businesses.

Now, though, some 7.5 million people in the countryside — even in remote areas — are enjoying dependable power supply courtesy of solar energy, thanks to the Rural Electrification and Renewable Energy Development Project (REREDP).

The project is being financed by both government and financial organisations. Acting as project implementer is the Infrastructure Development Co Ltd (IDCOL), which has partnered with 23 organisations for it.

So far, though, it is Grameen Shakti (GS), a sister concern of the famous micro-creditor Grameen Bank, that has taken the lead among these groups, installing over 550,000 solar home systems or SHS, or approximately 80 percent of the total solar energy units implemented to date.

And it is far from being done, at present linking 10,000 families to solar power each month. By 2012, GS wants to have provided 10 million Bangladeshis with electricity.

Says Grameen Shakti managing director Absar Kamal: 'As a leader in the solar energy programme in the country, we have a big challenge ahead. What we have achieved in the last 14 years we plan to achieve in just one year. As part of this challenge, we plan to support about 500,000 (more) families through soft loan schemes next year.'

Grameen Shakti-provided solar power for domestic or household use is subsidised, with the government paying 2,000 takas (2.84 dollars) per solar energy unit. This then lowers the price burden for home consumers, who end up paying only two takas per unit. (By comparison, consumers of the regular power supply pay 2.60 takas per unit, up to 100 units of use. Beyond that, the charge goes up to 3.30 takas per unit.)

But the consumers still need to take out loans for the SHS themselves. This is why although the target project beneficiaries are the rural poor, those who get to enjoy the service are people deemed to be capable of taking on the pay-by-installment scheme.

The repayment schedule is set from 24 months to 36 months, with service charges that range from four to six percent. Each client also gets to choose from solar 'power sets' that have different wattages, although most choose sets between 80 to 100 watts.

Kamal admits that the 'high up-front cost of renewable energy technologies' was among Grameen Shakti’s initial problems with the project, along with 'lack of rural network, knowledge or awareness among the rural people, trained manpower, (and) funding'.

At present, a household can enjoy uninterrupted solar-powered electricity for a maximum stretch of four hours. But that has been apparently enough for many families to increase their incomes, with many home-based workers now able to work for a few more hours.

Thousands of shopkeepers — many of whom share power from a single SHS — have also found themselves enjoying extended business hours. New businesses have sprung up as well because of the sudden availability of dependable power via the SHS.

Gofran even says, 'Apparently, the simple technology is becoming more popular among small traders than use by families due to its business potentials.'

But some have cautioned against Bangladesh becoming too gung-ho about solar power.

In an impassioned piece last year in the local ‘The Daily Star’ newspaper, photonics expert Shabbir A Bashar had questioned why Bangladesh was investing so much 'in a technology that costs seven times as much as conventional energy'.

Among other things, he noted that solar panels make up 63 percent of a typical solar energy system. Observed Bashar: 'Given Bangladesh's inability to manufacture solar panels, isn't this (the government’s support for solar energy) tantamount to wasting foreign exchange that could be better spent on upgrading the national grid transmission lines to build the much needed power distribution capacity?'

Apparently as part of its push for solar energy, the government in 2009 removed import duties for solar panels. Geothermal energy, though, remains Bangladesh’s top source of power, and is responsible for 45 percent of the country’s electricity supply.

Gas turbine and combined cycle and diesel meanwhile each provide 25 percent, while most of the remaining five percent comes from hydropower.

Currently, there are efforts to generate power through gas turbines since Bangladesh has plenty of gas reserves, along with coal deposits. The possibility of importing electricity from neighbouring India, Bhutan, and Nepal is being considered as well.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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