Shibayan Raha
In June this year, Bangladesh’s Power Minister Nurul Hamid made a surprising announcement when he said that the government is reviewing all but three of the 29 planned coal plants. Analysis by Market Forces found that Bangladesh has at least 29 coal-fired power projects in the pipelines, with a total capacity of 33,200 MW (pre-construction and under construction) as of July 2019. If the proposal becomes policy, then Bangladesh would be canceling 90% of coal projects. 

The proposal by the Power Ministry also calls into question the need for Phase 2 of the Matarbari coal plant. Phase 1 construction of the Matarbari coal plant is funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), and the Japanese government has given the green light for JICA to proceed with the survey for Phase 2. 

The review of coal power is good news for the climate and for Bangladesh. However, there are improvements that need to be made for this plan to truly be beneficial. As announced by Minister Hamid, the government is planning to switch from coal to Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG). Switching from coal to LNG will keep the status quo and won’t make any positive impact. In addition, it’s not enough to only cancel planned coal plants. Keeping the coal plants that are currently under construction would still raise carbon emissions and are not in line with the goals set by the Paris climate agreement. 

Why LNG shouldn’t be the bridge fuel

Bangladesh should be mindful of LNG, because of the additional problems it would bring. If we consider the whole product cycle of gas, its emissions are the same as coal. Instead of switching from coal to gas to renewable energy, Bangladesh can make a just transition to renewables right away. As climate impacts in Bangladesh intensify, it is clear that fossil fuels like gas are not a climate solution. Data shows that the greenhouse gas emissions just from burning the gas itself are enough to overshoot climate goals. A report by Oil Change International, “Burning the Gas ‘Bridge Fuel’ Myth”, highlights five reasons  why gas is not the solution:

These five points make clear that gas is not clean, not cheap, and not necessary:

  1. Gas Breaks the Carbon Budget: The economically recoverable oil, gas, and coal in both current and under-construction extraction projects would take the world far beyond safe climate limits. Further development of untapped gas reserves is inconsistent with the climate goals in the Paris Agreement.
  2. Coal-to-Gas Switching Doesn’t Cut It: Climate goals require the energy sector to be decarbonized by mid-century. This means that both coal and gas must be phased out. Replacing coal plants with new gas plants will not cut emissions by nearly enough, even if methane leakage is kept to a minimum.
  3. Low-Cost Renewables Can Displace Coal and Gas: The dramatic and ongoing cost declines for wind and solar disrupt the business model for gas in the power sector. Wind and solar will play an increasing role in replacing retiring fossil fuel capacity.
  4. Gas Is Not Essential for Grid Reliability: Wind and solar require balancing, but gas is not the only, nor the best, resource available to do so. Battery storage is fast becoming competitive with gas plants designed for this purpose. Managing high levels of wind and solar on the grid requires optimizing a wide range of technologies and solutions, including battery storage, demand response, and transmission. There is no reason to favor gas as the primary solution.
  5. New Gas Infrastructure Locks In Emissions: Multibillion-dollar gas infrastructure built today is designed to operate for decades to come. Given the barriers to closing down infrastructure ahead of its expected economic lifespan, it is critical to stop building new infrastructure, the full lifetime emissions of which will not fit within Paris-aligned carbon budgets.

A Case for renewable energy

A new solar energy plan drafted by the Sustainable and Renewable Energy Development Authority (SREDA ), offers a new pathway for Bangladesh’s renewable energy transformation. The draft plan recommends that the government steps up solar energy development to target 40,0000 (MW) by 2041.

Simon Nicholas from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis has pointed out that a focus on renewable energy development in Bangladesh will slow down the rate of per megawatt capacity additions as solar power stations are smaller and modular relative to coal and LNG-fired plants. This would help stop capacity additions from running ahead of power demand growth.

Solar is also becoming cheaper. “By 2025, renewables are set to become the largest source of electricity generation worldwide, ending coal’s five decades as the top power provider,” said the head of the International Energy Agency, Fatih Birol. Along with improving renewable energy generation, Bangladesh should also look at upgrading its existing power grid. This will help the power system absorb increased renewable energy and reduce the distribution losses that occur now.  

Will Bangladesh herald a new era for the fossil-free movement in the wider region? Only time will tell. Bangladesh could cancel all coal plant projects and use the land to kickstart new solar energy projects.  For now, it must keep coal and gas out of its energy transition plans and review them in consultation with environmental activists, renewable energy experts, and open it up for public consultation.