Solar for work in Bangladesh

The government is providing solar power systems as welfare payment in job schemes for the poor
<p>A solar home system in a house in a region not connected to the electricity grid [image by Abu Siddique]</p>

A solar home system in a house in a region not connected to the electricity grid [image by Abu Siddique]

For nearly two years now, Bangladesh has been providing solar home systems as part of its welfare programmes targeted at the 40 million citizens who still live below the poverty line.

Bangladesh has an extensive social safety net programme. Though limited by developed country standards – OECD countries spend about 20% of their GDP on social programmes, although they cover far more than the most marginalised – it still costs the government 2.2% of the country’s GDP. Now, access to solar energy has become a part of the programme.

“The government has been [using] 50% of the total allocation under the Food for Work and Test Relief programmes for providing solar home systems, and mini/micro/nano grid solar power generation for marginalised communities,” said Abu Syed Mohammad Hashim, an additional secretary in the Department of Disaster Management.

Part of the social safety net programme, Food for Work and Test Relief is designed to ensure food for the poor, to create jobs and support income generation. These programmes generally involve labour for building roads, and other such infrastructure.

But with Bangladesh having become self-sufficient in food production, lack of food or inability to buy it is no longer the biggest problem for the poor. Lack of energy remains a crippling problem, so the government is moving the subsidy in this direction.

The solar scheme

Hashim said 296,718 solar home systems have already been distributed under the initiative over the last two years, at a cost of BDT 3.9 billion (USD 48.8 million). The distributed units are producing 3.2 megawatts daily, he added.

Explaining the scheme, Hashim said, “A sub-district level committee led by local administration and public representatives send us the names of the possible beneficiaries of the scheme based on their marginality. Then we provide their details to our technical partner Infrastructure Development Company Limited (IDCOL) and they have been setting up the systems through their different implementing partners.”

For example, he said, “A poor family of six or seven family members have been provided a nano-grid solar system of 100-watt capacity. From that, the family will support another four families.”

This is the ingenious twist to the scheme. A family which receives the solar home system can sell excess energy to its neighbours at about BDT 100-150 (USD 1.25-1.90) per day by sharing 20 watts.

One beneficiary, Ismail Hossen, who lives in an island called Astomir char on the Brahmaputra river, told that, “Electricity supply to those living on chars (riverine islands) is a blessing because we are off the national grid.” He received a 40-watt solar system for his eight-member family.

According to Nazmul Haque Faisal, vice president of IDCOL, solar systems of different capacities are provided. For most, it is a 20-watt system that can light up three LED lights. Like the five million odd Bangladeshis who live in riverine islands, many of the people getting these systems are off the grid. This is their first access to reliable electricity, even if it is a very limited amount.

Renewable energy in Bangladesh

Bangladesh is an energy poor country, with only about 65% of the people with access to electricity. While much of the new growth in electricity production will come from coal based power plants, the country also set a target of producing 3,165 MW from renewable sources including solar, wind, bio-gas and hydro by 2021. Of them, solar energy is to account for 1,739 MW.

Bangladesh currently produces 419 MW of electricity from renewable sources, with 220 MW from solar power, most of it from individual home systems. There are over four million solar home systems in operation in the country as part of its solar initiative. Of them, about 297,000 units have been distributed under the Food for Work and Test Relief programmes.

Siddique Zobair, a member of the Sustainable and Renewable Energy Development Authority (SREDA) said that the primary target is to provide electricity to areas and communities off the grid. In addition, solar power will be provided on priority to mosques, temples and rural marketplaces.

But the small amount of electricity produced by the units being distributed does not seem likely to impact the overall energy mix– heavily weighted towards coal based power plants under construction.

See also: Will Bangladesh’s future be coal black?

More problematically, nepotism has been a common complaint in welfare schemes, especially because the beneficiaries are selected by local elected representatives. Nor is this the only complaint against Bangladesh’s social security net programmes, with activists asking for greater investment. A recent report by the World Bank on the social safety nets said that they “are undermined by weak targeting, inefficiency and fragmentation”. And so, while it may be a step in the right direction, it is a small step, rather than a large stride, either towards renewables or welfare in Bangladesh.