Mohammed Enamul Karim Pavel, head of the Bangladesh Renewable Energy Department, has led the push for rooftop solar energy harvesting in his country. The hallmark of Bangladesh’s solar energy revolution is not large power plants, but small solar solutions for poor villages where grid connectivity is hardly accessible.

Md Karim is a marine engineer and masters-degree holder in financial management. He has developed financial plans to give quality power to the poor at an affordable price and with little stress on government.

In an interview to VIJAY THAKUR, he spoke on the renewable energy sector in Bangladesh. Excerpts:

Q: Bangladesh’s renewable energy sector has not done well in installing large solar power plants like many other countries. What is hampering Bangladesh in promoting big power plants?

A: Certainly, Bangladesh has not done well in big solar projects. It is way behind many countries. But it is how you look at it. From the point of installation capacity, we hardly have any big power project. But if you look at it from the point of view of penetration of solar power plants in our system, it is remarkably good and revolutionary in many ways.

Unlike India and China, we do not even dream of gigawatt solar plants in the near future. However, if we talk of small solar power systems, we have over four million off-grid solar systems, which are powering poor houses in rural and remote areas where the grid is inaccessible. So offgrid solar system coverage is very high. Twelve per cent of our population is living on off-grid solar systems.

Do not consider that these are 100 watt to 5000 watt systems, the fact is that it is giving our people quality power at very reasonable prices meeting minimum requirements of poor villagers who either do not have grid or cannot afford power connections.

Q: So, you think renewable energy in Bangladesh is a success?

A: Yes, we are the world leader in residential rooftop solar power installations. Though the renewable energy sector has only 3 per cent share in total power generation in Bangladesh, we have covered 12 per cent of residential areas. Four million off-grid solar rooptop plants is the highest in the world. There is no other country close to us in residential rooftop installations. After Bangladesh, it is China which has installed nearly 2 million off-grid rooftop solar plants, which is just half of our capacity. Third world countries, not very rich in resources, have better adoption of solar energy than many developing countries. If you go to remote villages in Bangladesh, you would find more than 50 per cent houses are on offgrid solar power.

It is all because we encouraged the technology. In 2004-05, the grid coverage was less than 30 per cent in rural areas. Government thought that instead of waiting for grid connectivity, let us promote off-grid solutions to meet the basic power requirements of villagers. Initially it was very slow, but after 2008 it increased substantially and spread in villages with the help of government support, subsidy and affordable bank loans. Since 2011 there is no subsidy for residential solar systems but 50 per cent subsidy for irrigation solar pumps. Now, our government’s target is to cover 100 per cent electricity connections offgrid or on-grid by 2021.

Q: What is your plan to connect rooftop solar solutions with ongrids?

A: We have a great target for rooftop solar systems. Unlike India and Pakistan, we have little or no land for big solar projects. Also, Bangladesh is a densely populated country. What the government is planning is to promote on-grid solar systems so a household could sell extra power to the grid and earn money. We have little or no wasteland, almost all land is cultivable, and that’s why the only solution we have is rooftop installations. Government is concentrating on on-grid rooftop solar systems. I would not be surprised if Bangladesh shows a path to developing countries by initiating rooftop on-grid revolutions. We are working on these lines. There are clear instructions from the government not to use agricultural land for large solar power installations.

Q: Then how do you promote big solar power projects?

A: We need to accept the reality that we have no large chunk of wasteland for big solar power projects. But having said that we also acknowledge the fact that we have a large number of garment and textile units in Bangladesh. We have many industries which have more than one lakh to 10 lakh square foot rooftops or waste land in the industrial premises. This way we can install 500 KW to 10 MW solar power plants in these industries. Bangladesh Renewable Department is encouraging these industries to make use of their roofs for installing power plants. Though it would not be as big as India, but if installed in all garment and textile units, the power generation cost would be less or at par with what it is in India. Further it would increase the profitability and export competitiveness of our garment and textile industry.

Q: Since there is little or no wasteland in Bangladesh, how do you propose to go ahead with the ongoing solar revolution?

A: Where there is a will there is a way. While seeking potential for installation of solar power stations, we realised that we have a large number of rivers. Bangladesh is a land of rivers. We have nearly 240 rivers and large-scale water bodies in our country. We are now planning to harness these water bodies and rivers by installing floating solar power plants on these rivers. Here we have very good potential.

Interestingly it is not only going to generate power for us but would also increase the potential for fisheries. We are told that fish production would go up where floating solar power plants are installed. As the temperature under these floating power plants is less, fish take rest under its shadow and eat algae on these floating stands on the water bodies.

Q: So solar energy is a social revolution in Bangladesh?

A: Yes, we say it proudly. We are leaders in solar power adoption in rural areas. Bangladesh started offgrid solar system in 2004 for its poor villagers, when power generation through solar was as high as USD 5 a unit. Still people adopted it, accepted it and harnessed it, they got good quality power at affordable price. Today solar power production cost is a few cents, and now it makes business sense for residential, commercial as well as for industrial usage.

Q: What would be your next thrust area?

A: Electrical vehicles are going to be another revolution in Bangladesh. We already have more than one million electric rickshaws. We are working out a solution on how to charge electrical vehicle batteries. We are trying to create infrastructure. At present, we are recycling five million lead acid batteries. Next it would be lithium ion batteries as they are getting cheaper and cheaper.