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Is land scarcity really throttling the growth of solar power?

Nov 12, 2023

| Azmin Azran

The suggestion that solar power should lead Bangladesh's charge into a renewable energy revolution is often met with the sceptical remarks that we don't have enough land. But a recent study by Coastal Livelihood and Environmental Action Network (CLEAN) and Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA) says otherwise.

At this point, climate change activists and experts alike agree that renewable energy has to be the driver of growth for human civilisation going forward. The carbon footprint attached to fossil fuels, as well as the economic challenges of securing sufficient supply of hydrocarbon-based fuels for the thirsty and growing industrial base of Bangladesh means that focusing on renewable energy will soon no longer be an option, but a necessity.

The tropical and sunny climate of Bangladesh means that of all the modes of renewable energy, solar power is the most promising option. Bangladesh receives solar radiation of around four kilowatt-hour per square metre on average around the year. But the installation of solar infrastructure requires land that, in the tug of war between agricultural use, urbanisation and industrialisation, has become scarce.

The study produced by CLEAN and BELA, titled "Myths & Reality about Land Availability for Solar Power in Bangladesh: Rangpur Division", used data obtained from the DC offices of eight districts of Rangpur division, as well as a multitude of other government departments and agencies, to get a picture of the khas land available under each upazila, the amount of land in agricultural use, the amount of water bodies that can be used for floating solar plants, as well as the demand and distribution pattern of electricity.

We spoke to Sarmin Bristy, research officer at CLEAN, to get a better understanding of the findings in this study and what it means for the future of solar power in Bangladesh.

"In our study, we have made conservative estimates. Out of the 118,328 acres of fallow khas land in Rangpur division, based on GIS (Geographic Information System) mapping, we have estimated that 8,628 acres can be used for ground-mounted solar photovoltaics. We have made similar estimates for solar installations on rooftops and water bodies. For agro voltaics, which is the shared use of agricultural land for cropping and solar power, we have considered only 11 percent of arable khas land in the division. If these methods are combined, the eight districts of Rangpur division have the potential to produce 11,944MW of solar power," she explained.

The researchers used demand estimates based on the Integrated Energy and Power Master Plan (IEPMP), a project being undertaken by Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). Currently, the peak hour demand in Rangpur division is 942.01MW. Extrapolating for 2050, based on a 7.6 percent yearly increase in demand (according to IEPMP), the figure will stand at 4,532.51MW.

According to Sarmin, "In our study, the potential for electricity production through solar power exceeds both current demand and the demand we estimate for Rangpur division in 2050."

The reason behind solar power lagging in growth in Bangladesh can be explained by the challenges mentioned in this study. For starters, 38 types of licences and certificates are required to set up a solar power plant in Bangladesh. Even if land scarcity is not an issue, land acquisition provides a further challenge, as khas lands are often mired in complicated land disputes. Import duties on rooftop solar panels and off-grid small-scale solar plants is yet another obstacle, and the intermittent nature of electricity production at solar power plants means that a smarter, more advanced grid management technology is an obligation moving into the future.

While this study paints a promising picture of solar power in Bangladesh's northernmost Rangpur division, what about the rest of the country?

Hasan Mehedi, chief executive of CLEAN, spoke to us about the concurrent research activities being undertaken on the potential of solar power across various regions in Bangladesh.

"We have carried out similar studies in Khulna, Rajshahi, and Chattogram and identified a large potential that exceeds the existing electricity demand of those divisions. We are hopeful that subsequent studies will yield similar positive findings," he said.

News Link: Is land scarcity really throttling the growth of solar power?

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