The Financial Express

Solar solace: Clean and fair air

Solar-based irrigation systems are innovative and environment-friendly solution for the agro-based economy of Bangladesh.         —Credit:  idcol.org Solar-based irrigation systems are innovative and environment-friendly solution for the agro-based economy of Bangladesh.         —Credit:  idcol.org

Bangladesh evolving into a 'carbon-bomb'? On the eve of the country's fiftieth birthday anniversary, one certainly hopes not. Highlighting that fact, one local newspaper (Emran Hossain, "Six countries turn Bangladesh into carbon-bomb," New Age, November 07, 2019), listed those countries as China, India, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, and the United Kingdom. Their offensive action: sponsoring 29 mega coal power-plants capable of producing 115 million tons of carbon-dioxide by 2031 (and 4,600 million tons over their 40-year life). With China leading the list as contributor, followed by the United Kingdom, Singapore, India, Japan, and Malaysia, in that order, Bangladesh's benefit would be to push the current coal-power capacity from 525MW (megawatts) to 33,200MW, yet the costs, the article noted, ranged from fly-ash covering Dhaka's sky to more than doubling cyclone intensity from rising temperatures.

The onset of such a dim appraisal would be catastrophic for the country, more than half of whose population remains in the 20s of age, or under. It would placate the country as another environmental spoiler (after Donald Trump's United States walked out of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or IPCC negotiations and commitments), in a world striving hard to combat climate-related problems. It is far easier to list the many problems being faced on these fronts than to expose the accomplishments made. Take, for example, the ozone-depletion scare of the 1970s. That rallied 197 countries to sign the Montreal Protocol in 1987 to stop chloroflourocarbons (CFCs), and related causal subsystems, behind ozone-depletion. By its 30th anniversary, in 2017, this agreement silently helped curb over 140 billion tons of carbon-dioxide emission from reaching the atmosphere, preventing up to 2 (two) million cases of skin-cancer, and generating over $2 (two) trillion of new health and economic benefits. It would be hard fathoming these stalwart gains against the noise populism is generating in certain countries and the challenges of a self-seeking emergent global trading structure.

That these happened encourages Bangladesh's grim status to be reassessed. Of course, many of these power-plants remain far from completion, meaning that firm negotiations could still modify the constituent elements, especially with regards importing coal (projected to be up to $2.0 billion annually). Sure, we are in a single-minded pursuit to become a 'developed' country by the 2040s, and keeping the growth-rate above the 8.0 per cent plateau is crucial to that goal. Yet, that goal can still be reached if we turn to tap some of our other energy alternatives. That we have been neglecting them does not hold up to realities on the ground. Once prioritised, our hope of having our cake and eating it too still remains.

What alternatives do we have? Clearly solar, tidal, and wind power have been in the news, and how we put them to better use that has entered public discourse may hold the key. In reverse order, wind power has to be an obvious power source in a country battered by cyclones every now and then, and where Monsoon rains involve a regular force that only renews itself frequently enough (annually). The very islands where some of these coal power-plants are being constructed or envisaged (in the past or presently), such as Matarbari and Sonadia, are ideally placed for generating wind power. Those generators would have to be extra sturdy to often withstand howling winds, such as those associated with cyclones, but nothing serious research cannot tackle: screen-shielding those generators in bad weather is a low-cost approach worth experimenting.

Even our midget-sized hills (compared to the Himalayan backdrop) offer enough of a platform to produce more-than-locally-needed power. We must exploit them, if our grandchildren are to look back favourably upon us.

Related to coastal/island wind power is tidal power, a source examined for exploitation from the early 1980s. At least the tides were found to be satisfactory in height to make this possible, an opportunity waiting for the adventurous investor. Even public sector investment would help trigger private sector interest, but this is as good an alternative as one can get, and as fresh as clean air.

Of course, the most discussed and exploited alternative is solar, so much so that Bangladesh does have a global accolade of two in this arena to wager. That we must destroy our atmosphere under such heavy coal investment is baffling when we compare what we have done and the virgin developmental prospects still available.

The star development here is the Solar Home Systems (SHS) Initiative, begun in 2003, building upon the 1997 public institution, the Infrastructure Development Company Limited (IDCOL), to supply our still-huge rural population with energy (and to escape such dangerous alternatives as the potentially inflammable kerosene). At that time, two-thirds of the country's population did not have any electricity access, and since the country's commitment to the Millennium Developmental Goals (MDGs) demanded such access, the IDCOL response was the kind of a gesture we need more urgently today.

With World Bank/International Development Association (WB/IDA) funding (US$ 78 million or so) in 2014, the project got underway to supply almost half-a-million households with solar energy facilities. Today over 5 (five) million homes benefit from this, accounting for up to 15 per cent of total consumers. Not only that, but with 70,000 or so homes being fitted each month, at least under the WB/IDA project, this SHS venture became the fastest-growing venture of its kind globally. It may be that our industrial needs have grown faster that coal power-plants receive as much attention as they do today, but reviving the initial thrust and expanding the project to also touch and cover industrial units would go a long way to bequeath the clean and fair air Rabindranath Tagore knew so well and which we sing so reverently yet blankly.

On the one hand, individual and industrial needs would be satisfied, quenching the direst of circumstances. On the other, the windows this energy-supply would open for each recipient cannot simply be assumed away. Since a lot of money goes into acquiring energy, thus demanding much more of time, every recipient household would have surplus time and resources to explore other opportunities that could only be dreamed of before. With more energy, resources, and steady income, we can be sure their children would be supplied playgrounds and clean air upon demand. Isn't that what 'growth', 'modernisation', and 'civilisation' are all about? Let's cash in on such thinking.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Dean (Acting), School of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences (SLASS) and Head, Global Studies & Governance Program Independent University, Bangladesh

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