Making the energy transition in Bangladesh and around the world

On the last day of the 22nd Conference of Parties (COP22) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Marrakech, Morocco in November 2016, the 48 most vulnerable countries in the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF) made a unilateral declaration that they intended to shift to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050 without any preconditions. This remarkable show of leadership from the most vulnerable countries counteracted the previous gloom that had followed the results of the presidential elections in the US. Thus, the Marrakech meeting ended on a much more positive note than when it started.

The challenge of transition will not be faced only by CVF countries, but by every other country hoping to be a part of this change. The transition required is for all people and countries to stop their dependence on fossil fuel based energy, and instead shift to renewable energy over the next few decades.

There are three major fossil fuels, each with varying degrees of pollution. The most polluting by far is coal, which is used primarily for generating power in big multi megawatt (MW) power plants from which the electricity is then distributed to both domestic and industrial consumers by a grid of large and smaller electricity lines. The second most polluting fossil fuel is petroleum which is used mostly for transport vehicles using Internal Combustion Engines (ICE), which number in hundreds of millions around the world as well as for aviation and shipping. The third and least polluting of the three fossil fuels is natural gas which can be used to power electricity generation or also for vehicles through compressed natural gas (CNG), or domestic cooking by gas cylinders or pipes.

The transition from fossil fuels will have to take a phased approach with coal to be targeted first as a matter of priority, and then petroleum, finally followed by natural gas. Thus, we could aim to phase out coal by 2020 to 2025, petroleum by 2030 and natural gas by 2050.

Let us take coal first. Already renewable energy (including both wind as well as solar) have become price competitive with coal globally and even President Trump will find it impossible to find investors for coal mines where he has promised the miners to get them their jobs back (unless he invests his own money in coal mines which is quite unlikely).

At the same time, the use of solar energy is spreading very quickly, with a combination of improved efficiency of solar cells and enhanced storage capacity so that the solar energy captured during the day can be used during the night, thereby solving the intermittency problem of sunlight only being available during the day.

This has created a virtuous cycle in terms of green job creation all over the world. Even in the US, there were more jobs created last year in solar energy alone compared to all three fossil fuel industries. So even if President Trump dislikes the Obama measures to support renewable energy in the US, he will not be able to stop the job creation by the industry which will be supported by individual states even if the Federal Government withdraws its support.

In the case of China, which is already the world leader in solar energy, there is a huge planned expansion of investments of several hundred billion US dollars over the coming years in solar energy, while they have accelerated their plans to phase out coal despite having huge coal reserves left.

Thus, the transition from coal is well on its way across the world.

With regard to petroleum, the transition will require the shift from ICEs to Electric Vehicles (EVs), which is beginning to happen in a small way at the higher price range of cars and buses but will rapidly become more competitive as prices of EVs come down. Already, every major ICE vehicle manufacturer around the world is investing in EVs. At the same time the aviation industry is developing planes that can run on bio-fuels instead of petroleum.

Bangladesh is a founding member of the CVF and Prime Minster Sheikh Hasina was in fact the third chair of the Forum, and we remain a key member of the group. Hence, Bangladesh needs to develop a strategy to fulfill its commitment to go 100 percent renewable by 2050. The timeline is key, as it allows us several decades to phase out of fossil fuels and make the shift to renewable energy.

In Bangladesh, we already have the fastest growing solar home system (SHS) dissemination in the world, with around five million households already connected to the system, supplying electricity to around 20 million, mostly poor people living in rural areas of the country. This rapid expansion of SHS has been assisted by geographical and institutional factors. The geography of Bangladesh, with thousands of villages spread across myriads of rivers and streams, means that taking grid electricity is relatively expensive while the demand in each village is only a few kilowatts (KW). On the other hand, SHS with its distributed systems is relatively cheap for each household to afford and delivers small amounts of electricity per household as per their need for light and few household appliances only.

Nevertheless, the provision of even lighting only at the household level in rural areas is in itself a major boost to quality of life, particularly for children who can comfortably study at night, and women who can visit the latrine at night. In many decades of following a centralised power generation and delivery by grid lines, we failed to reach the poorest and most remote areas which are now being reached by SHS.

The second major innovation was the institutional design of private-public-partnership (PPP), where the Infrastructure Development Company Limited (IDCOL) is the PPP mechanism for providing cheap loans to a few dozen private sector companies and NGOs who provide the units to households against a loan. Both then collect loan repayments in installments and also provide after sales service in case anything goes wrong with the systems.

Thus, Bangladesh is well placed to build on these small SHS system and go to the next level of bigger systems that can supply mini-grids to markets and industries and even to big array systems in the future that can supply to the main grid over time. However, Bangladesh will have to take the time to wean itself off the fossil fuels it is currently using. First coal has to go, even if the proposed Rampal project actually goes ahead (and if it is possible to reconsider then perhaps it would be smart to do so). The future of coal based power generation is coming to an end, so locking ourselves to an obsolete technology will not be in our own long term interests.

Originally this article was published on Tuesday 14 February, 2017 at Daily Star. The author Dr. Saleemul Huq is the director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) at the Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB).