Attaining a long term solution to our energy problems

by Badrul Imam
A 100 MW power plant in the private sector

A 100 MW power plant in the private sector

The nagging energy crisis in the country is more a result of not being able to utilise enough of the available energy resources, rather than a lack of it, at least for the present time. Natural gas – with limited to modest reserve – has been the single biggest source of energy in meeting the lion’s share of energy need in the country. And yet we know for a long time that we have another energy source, coal, in significant reserve, lying unutilised. The country does not have long term energy security, but it could certainly get to better position in terms of energy supply, at present, if available resources are properly utilised.
The present energy crisis did not crop up in a day but was an inevitable consequence of past policymakers not adopting a sensible energy policy. There has never been a plan to address energy crisis caused by gas crunch. The ongoing measures to overcome the crisis have been controversial, as expensive imported oil is being used to run oil-based rental and quick rental power plants. This has given an apparent facelift to the power crisis, although its negative economic fallout remains a major cause of concern.
Local coal development remains in the arena of debate and a realistic approach in developing available coal has not been forthcoming. The present crisis is set to continue for an unknown time period and a practical solution to this crisis is not in sight. The governmental move towards large scale power generation by imported coal is expected to fall short of target because of bad economics and lack of infrastructure.
Looking into the long term future, a solution to our energy crisis remains even more undefined. Bangladesh has no long-term energy security policy. Considering the growth of energy demand and a limited to modest indigenous energy resource, Bangladesh has to look for options to import gas and electricity. This is not unique to Bangladesh. The increasing trend of cross border gas and electricity trade among many nations in the world justifies such means.
Since Bangladesh ignored a gas import opportunity from Myanmar about a decade ago through the tri-nation (India-Bangladesh-Myanmar) gas pipeline, there has been no other move to try to buy gas from outside. Myanmar’s gas went to China, and India is not and will not be in a position to export gas to Bangladesh.
The import of 500 MW of electricity from West Bengal, India, is the first instance of Bangladesh taking up a regionally collaborative action to augment its energy basket. There is further scope of electricity import from Tripura on a small scale that Bangladesh may negotiate in the short term future.
Lately, the Indian government has shown interest in its large scale power transmission plan for transmission of electricity from the Subansiri 2000 MW hydropower plant (largest of its kind in India) in Arunachal Pradesh in northeastern India to West-Bengal-Bihar via Bangladesh territory. This will obviously give Bangladesh an opportunity to allow this transmission, in exchange of part of the power being sold to Bangladesh.
The Subansiri hydroelectric plant is located in the border of Assam and of Arunachal Pradesh, the latter sitting on the mighty Himalayan Mountain.  In fact, India has identified the mountainous Arunachal Pradesh as a potential future power house where many more hydropower plants are being contemplated. This however, has raised strong opposition from local people, especially in downstream Assam state, where the environmental effects of the dam are expected to be severe. An anti-dam movement has already disrupted the construction of the Subansiri hydro-power project several times. Construction of the project began in 2007 and was scheduled to be completed in 2014, but a delayed timeframe of 2017 is now being given for its completion.
India has huge domestic demand for power and it supplements self-generated power with imported hydro- power from neighboring Nepal and Bhutan. Nepal and Bhutan have huge hydro-power potentials because of mountainous terrains with rivers suitable for hydroelectricity generation. The hydropower potential of Bhutan is 30,000 MW (present generation is 1500 MW or 5 per cent of the total potential) and that of Nepal is 42000MW (present generation is 650 MW or 1.5 per cent of the total potential). India has utilised Nepal and Bhutan’s hydro-power potential by financing hydropower plants there and importing electricity from the plants.
Bhutan plans to export 10,000 MW of electricity to India by 2020. At present, Bhutan exports 80 per cent of its generated power to India. Power export has been the greatest revenue earner for the landlocked tiny nation of Bhutan.
Both Bhutan and Nepal have huge hydropower potential and have been trading power with India for more than a decade. Considering the fact that these two nations plan to increase power export to India manifold in future, Bangladesh should also consider itself a power trading partner with Bhutan and Nepal.
The willingness of Bhutanese King to export hydroelectricity to Bangladesh, as expressed during his recent visit (mid-2013) to Dhaka, may be a turning point for Bangladesh to move forward, should it seriously want Bhutanese electricity. A joint Bangladesh-India-Nepal-Bhutan collaborative move should be a proper path by which many aspects could well be solved.
There have been international moves to implement two large scale long distance cross border pipelines, which do not at this stage take Bangladesh on board, but energy observers think Bangladesh should take negotiate to be a part of the project.  These two long term mega projects are TAPI and IPI gas pipeline projects.
The TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-India-Pakistan) was conceived in 1995 but a delayed signing of the participating nations, which took place in 2010, was due to political turmoil in that region. Under the $ 7.6 billion TAPI project, 33 bcm/year of gas from gas rich Turkmenistan will be transported via 1736-kilometre long pipeline to Afghanistan (3 bcm/year), Pakistan (15 bcm/year) and India (15 bcf/year). Construction of the pipeline is expected to start in 2014 and completed by 2016. The main drawback towards its timely implementation had been the political and military unrest in the region.
The IPI (Iran-Pakistan-India) is another mega project that plans to transport gas via long distance (2770 km) pipeline from gas rich Iran to Pakistan and India. The pipeline construction has partly been completed and the project is supposed to start transporting gas to Pakistan in 2014.
Although India backed out from the project at one point in time due to US pressure, recent Indian willingness to rejoin the project has been reported. The pipeline is supposed to run from the Iranian South Par gas field to Karachi and then to Delhi via Multan. The IPI project has one drawback in the sense that the US is opposed to a gas pipeline deal between Iran and India or Pakistan.
Both Turkmenistan and Iran have huge gas reserves and both the TAPI and IPI projects plan large scale and long term pipeline gas exports to the countries under the project. Bangladesh can shelve its gas crisis for the long term future if it can join the TAPI or IPI club. That will need considerable maneuvering in the political, economic and diplomatic arena.

The writer is professor, department of geology, University of Dhaka

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