Bangladesh has long struggled with power outages, with the nation experiencing its worst electricity crises in 2008 and 2009. Reports said one blackout, in 2014, affected as many as 100 million people — more than 60% of the population.
With a growing economy and a large population, the country always runs the risk of hampering its development process, which could cause instability. To counteract this, Bangladesh has turned to courting foreign direct investment to fill its ever-growing gap between energy consumption and supply. Companies from Britain, China, India and the United States have invested in the energy industry in Bangladesh.
With 95% of the population now having access to electricity, Bangladesh is focusing on increasing its use of renewable energy as climate and other environmental concerns are growing across the globe.
In an exclusive interview with VOA, Dr. Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury, energy adviser to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, talks about how a developing country like Bangladesh is taking initiatives to bring power to the entire population by 2021 that will include an increase in green energy alternatives.
VOA: In your address during during Bangladesh Energy and Power Summit 2018, you said investment and development of innovative technologies are the two major issues that need to be given more priority to meet the power generation targets. What steps have you taken so far to achieve this?
Chowdhury: Since 2009, we have mobilized $20 billion of investment in the power sector projects, which has been approved and are being implemented. Half of this $20 billion investment will come from the private sector. We are encouraging foreign private investors to come and invest in the power sector.
Moving away from a policy of relying on domestic investment or investments from multilateral agencies like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, our government went out to the market and involved the private sector, in particular the foreign companies who have made bids for various power projects, to raise funds on their own.
In terms of development of innovative technologies, we have established the Bangladesh Energy and Power Research Council to develop technological solutions, which are environmentally friendly. The council also aims to promote research and innovation in sustainable renewable energy.
VOA: As of 2018, Bangladesh had a capacity of generating power of 18,000 megawatts and your goal is to generate 60,000 megawatts by 2041. But how much of this 60,000 would be renewable energy?
Chowdhury: I would say 10% is a good target. We are building a nuclear power plant with 1,200 megawatts of electricity generation capacity that can be upgraded to generating up to 2,400 megawatts.
We are also exploring possibilities of using wind energy turbines in five or six areas of the country, and invited proposals from interested companies.
We have the largest [coverage of] solar home systems in the world, [amounting to] over 6 million homes. Multiply this [by] five [members] in each home, and you have 30 million people who have access to renewable energy via solar home systems.
These are stand-alone solar home systems, small solar panels for individual households, not connected to a national grid. So they have their limitations, and I think we have reached as far as we can go through this route.
We are exploring the possibilities of connecting our national grid to national grids of other South Asian countries like India, Myanmar, Bhutan and Nepal. ... Nepal and Bhutan have great potential in developing hydropower projects that would produce renewable energy in enormous quantity that can be imported to Bangladesh by connecting our national grids with the national grids of India, Nepal and Bhutan.
VOA: In an interview with Voice of America, Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dr. M.A. Momen said that in his recent meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mr. [Mike] Pompeo, the U.S. investment or the U.S.-Bangladesh partnership in exploration [of hydrocarbon reserves in offshore blocks] did come up, so where are we on that?
Chowdhury: U.S. companies have shown interest in investing in new explorations. Mobil came to us and showed their interest in both upstream and downstream hydrocarbon industry. We will invite them to come and discuss with us the possibility of exploration of deep sea [hydrocarbon reserves].
VOA: Are there any other areas in the energy sector where U.S. investment or U.S.-Bangladesh partnership is possible?
Chowdhury: Recently, we have signed a memorandum of understanding with General Electric and its local partner to provide over 2,000 megawatts of electricity. And we have signed a contract with Summit Power and GE to build a 583-megawatt power plant. So the U.S. companies are showing a lot of interest. We are hoping that they will bring state-of-the-art technology.
We also hope in R and D — research and development — we have some cooperation between the U.S. and Bangladesh. From the Energy and Power Research Council, we have reached out to the nonresident Bangladeshi scientists in the USA and invited them to come and join us in the platform we have, and share their experiences, suggestions and maybe … undertake research in collaboration with U.S. educational institutions.
VOA: One of the priorities of your government is to provide safety nets for the poor and the underprivileged citizens. You have been providing subsidies to keep the gas affordable for most citizens. Do you have any plan in the near future to gradually withdraw the subsidy?
Chowdhury: The electricity we send to villages … we give it at a lower cost. We don't look at it as subsidy, more as an investment in human capital. Access to electricity is a life-changing input in a rural environment. It helps in education, small-scale production, and in taking care of the elderly. It will reduce infant mortality. It will reduce maternal mortality. The extra tab that we take between the cost and the receipt, we look at it as a social investment.
VOA: Before I wrap up, I want to ask, what's your vision? Where do you want to see Bangladesh's energy sector in, say, in the next 20, 30 years?
Chowdhury: Well, I want to see every household has electricity. We should lead the way in energy efficiency. We should lead the way in energy conservation, and we should lead the way in energy responsibility. Responsibility is what the prime minister has put emphasis on. We say, be responsible [in energy usage]. We can tax Mother Earth to a certain extent, not beyond that. Use as much as you need, not as much as you can afford.