Fossil fuels look set to secure a prominent presence in Bangladesh’s economy and energy landscapes
Global superpowers are now trashing fossil fuels which still account for 85% of energy sources as the "dirtiest", and are announcing generous plans to heal the wounds they caused to the global climate throughout a century of industrial development.
But Bangladesh is yet to realign its future energy policy in line with the global trend of embracing clean energy that banks on a steep fall in prices and rapid improvements in renewable technologies, mainly solar.
Natural gas is currently used to generate more than half of the country's electricity and its share in the primary energy mix will fall to 38% in the next 20 years.
Although furnace fuel has been largely used to meet emergency needs of electricity over the last few years, use of oil in electricity generation is projected to see a drastic decline in the long-term energy plan.
Still, fossil fuels look set to secure a prominent presence in Bangladesh's economy and energy landscapes although the country has devised a roadmap to enhance the share of renewables in its future energy mix and implemented policy incentives to this end.
Coal, oil to reign
Despite a recent interest and growth in wind energy, it accounts for only 0.3% of global electricity generation today after 30 years since Denmark first showed the world the way to sea wind turbines. Now, the United Kingdom is the leader in wind energy and is projected to be taken over by China by 2025. Wind energy saw its biggest growth last year and is expected to grow by 5.2% till 2027.
The global solar energy market is anticipated to reach $223.3 billion in six years – four times as much as it is today. Annual growth is 20.5%, propelled by rapidly declining costs, increasing demand for clean electricity and supportive policies. The cost to install solar has dropped by more than 70% over the last decade.
But, the share of global electricity that comes from solar is just over 2%.
Here again, China is the largest producer and buyer of solar panels.
Even though global media headlines give an impression that coal is going to be a thing of the past, a look at hard data brings one down to earth.
Both oil and coal – vilified as dirty fossil fuels – are very much in the future energy plans of big powers who are more vocal against pollution and are promising big cuts in carbon emission to cool the climate and heal the environment.
Amid a global outcry against dirty fuels, coal is still the single largest source of electricity generation and shows no sign of becoming a part of energy history any time soon.
Nearly 400 new coal-fired plants are under construction around the world, including three in Bangladesh.
China tops the list of coal power producing countries, while the United States gets 30% of its electricity from coal facilities, India 60% and Japan 32%, according to data from the International Energy Association.
Germany, the largest coal consumer in Europe, announced plans to phase out its coal plants, but not until 2038.
Oil that fuelled the global economy, politics, business, automobiles and even wars in the 20th century is now in the midst of an energy shock, losing a fifth of its demand and almost half of its prices due to pandemic-induced shutdowns enforced worldwide.
Although the recovery looks jittery and fossil fuel producers like ExxonMobil and British Petroleum are struggling to stay afloat, this recession does not mark an end to oil.
Oil prices had slumped in the 1970s too, but regained its place soon as global powers tightened their grips over oil trade and supplies to meet their energy needs.
The need is not over yet.
Today the US, already the number one energy superpower, has more than doubled its oil output and its gas production increased by over 50% in a decade to be the world's top producer of both fuels.
President Donald Trump told American oilmen in Texas this summer that the US will "never again be reliant on hostile foreign suppliers"— a strong message that the US wants to reign supreme in the future fossil-fuel market too.
Meanwhile, even amid the current slump in the oil market, China's demand for oil imports, already the largest in the world, continues to grow.
While the US wants to squeeze oil exports, China has increased imports from Iran and Venezuela and planned to finance a pipeline to get oil from Russia.
So, oil will be staying there too, despite calls for a shift in the energy mix for the 21st century, with global power promising a better than oil age to reduce global temperature and carbon emissions drastically.
Where we are
America's Democratic presidential contender, Joe Biden, wants to spend $2 trillion decarbonising America's economy. The European Union (EU) has earmarked 30% of its $880 billion Covid-19 recovery plan for climate measures, and the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen announced that the EU would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 55% over 1990 levels in the next decade.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has also promised to speed up reductions in emissions in the world's top-polluting nation and reach carbon neutrality by 2060.
These promises are supported by projections of a new energy system: The rise of renewable electricity such as solar and wind power from 5% of supply today to 25% in 2035, and nearly 50% by 2050 and a drop in oil and coal use, while cleaner natural gas will remain central.
But the reality is different for Bangladesh. In its long-term projection, Bangladesh will have to raise the share of coal in its energy mix to 35% – five times more than now. However, renewable energy is expected to make up for 15% of its electricity production in the next 20 years.
Bangladesh still gets 57% of its electricity from natural gas – the most reliable source of clean energy. Coal accounts for only 5.54% and oil 33%, which are projected to rise to 30% and drop to 5% respectively in 2041 as the share of natural gas is expected to fall to 38%, according to the Power Sector Master Plan 2016.
According to the Power Sector Master Plan (PSMP-2010), the country was supposed to generate 10% electricity from the renewable source by 2020 out of its total generation.
Currently, most of the renewable energy produced in Bangladesh is at off–grid household level.
However, the government has revised the target in the PSMP-2016 (revised in 2018) to ramp up the share of renewable energy to 15% by 2041 from about 1% now.
Although Bangladesh's success in off-grid solar energy for remote rural areas is remarkable with 5.8 million solar home systems installed so far, its future might be limited to mini-grid projects capable of supplying grid quality electricity only to households and small commercial activities in areas without access to grid power.
Wind energy success has been limited to only two plants so far, with a negligible amount being added to the grid.
Nuclear power will account for 10% in 2041 from zero at present.
Since prospects for renewable energy look bleak and hydroelectricity being just a historical reference, Bangladesh needs to enhance its reliance on coal and oil to run its power plants in the future.
Nuclear power remains an option which Bangladesh has already availed of, but its rapid expansion cannot be expected, given the investment and time it requires, and risk factors associated with it.
So, saying "goodbye" to fossil fuels remains a luxury for Bangladesh whose natural gas reserves dwindle and sunlight and wind show little prospect of meeting even a fraction of its energy demand.
'We are not in a position to end fossil-fuel age'
Bangladesh is not in a position to say "goodbye" to fossil fuels – be it petroleum oil or coal – right now, nor even in decades to come, says Mohammad Tamim, a professor at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (Buet).
"Germany and others, which are now cursing coal, are still having a significant share of coal-based electricity in their grids," he points out.
The energy expert does not see much prospects for solar and wind energy in Bangladesh.
"We do not have enough space for solar power generation at utility level. For a 100MW solar plant, 350 to 400 acres of land will be needed," he says.
The national grid cannot rely on electricity expected from renewable sources such as sunlight and wind since both are nature-based and unpredictable. This prompted California to cut off rooftop solar electricity from the national grid, Prof Tamim cites.
Where does Bangladesh stand amid a worldwide campaign for a shift to the future energy with global powers devising strategies to end dirty energy sources such as coal and fossil fuel?
Prof Tamim says countries that are calling for switching to clean fuel-powered electricity have already enough back-ups – fossil-fuel-based generation and strong regional connectivity – to respond to any shortage.
"Say, if Spain falls short of solar power due to adverse weather conditions, they can get supply from Portugal to make up for the shortage. All countries do not have such connectivity.
"We seek to achieve carbon-neutral energy sources, and natural gas remains the most favourable option for us. It's the least pollutant," he stresses.
As demand has shrunk, many furnace-oil based power plants now remain suspended in Bangladesh. Three major coal-based power plants are in progress and cannot be abandoned at this stage.
"We should stop there and should not go for any further coal-fired electricity projects. We need to focus more on natural gas to generate electricity for quite some time."
Prof Tamim compares Bangladesh's position with that of major polluters such as the United States, China and even India. "Bangladesh's share in global carbon emissions is 0.5%. This does not mean we should raise our share to 4%. But our options are limited even if we want to bring down emissions to zero."
Appreciating Bangladesh's stride for nuclear energy with Russian loan and technology, Prof Tamim, who served as special assistant to a caretaker government chief on energy affairs, says nuclear power plants have a "history of notorious delay" in commissioning everywhere. He hopes the units at the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant will be commissioned as early as possible.
"Nuclear electricity is good, given the fool-proof security features as claimed. But it involves huge investment and time. Lack of skills also remains a big question worldwide."