Development or suicide?

Sajed Kamal | Published: 15:43, Jan 22,2017 | Updated: 17:23, Jan 22,2017



THE Bangladesh government has decided to build a coal-fired power plant in Rampal and a nuclear power plant in Rooppur. The decision would have been applauded — 50 years ago. At the height of an unbridled drive for industrialisation, these energy sources, along with oil and natural gas, were considered panaceas. There were reasons for that. These fuel sources were like genies in bottles — trap them, then release them — as light and heat — whenever and of whatever quantities, and for whatever tasks, the masters wished them to perform. They also seemed unlimited and highly profitable — for the masters/owners who mined them — capitalising the gifts/endowments of nature. From the condition of needing to rely on nature’s whims for light and heat, the advantage of being able to store, convert and use these fuels on human command was indeed a revolutionary transition.

But much has been learned over the past 50 years about the consequences of relying on these fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) and nuclear (through processing uranium) for energy resources. They are not unlimited and the genie is exhausted: deposited over millions of years, the global reserves of oil, natural gas and uranium are estimated to be depleted within 30-50 years and coal within 100-200 years. One can always argue about the exact number of years, but there’s no valid scientific disagreement about the limited availability of these resources. Moreover, the rate of their extraction far exceeding their rate of deposition, these resources are also nonrenewable.

And that’s only a part of the predictable and critical consequences of relying on nonrenewables: cyclones, tornadoes, hurricanes, rising sea levels, floods, droughts, freakish weather patterns, and the Arctic melting expedited by climate change; oil spills; nuclear disasters associated with mining, production, waste storage, out of control costs, accidents, weapons proliferation; pollution; toxic contamination of water, air and soil; adverse health effects; ever-costlier and ruthless exploitation of rapidly depleting fuel reserves; more frequent earthquakes due to fracking; safety and security risks; and energy wars.

So, is there a solution? The answer is: Yes!

Look at the Sun — and the amazing set of technologies which are fueled by it! Only one hour of sunlight falling on the Earth’s surface contains energy equivalent to what we use globally for an entire year. Freely, the energy from the Sun is received through the renewable subsystems of light, heat, wind, water movement and photosynthesis. In addition to direct uses, there are also an extraordinary variety of technologies to convert, store and distribute energy through a wide range of designs and scales. Photovoltaics, wind turbines, hydroelectric generators, solar water heaters, solar greenhouses, biogas plants and solar cookers are being implemented for a wide range of domestic, industrial and consumer products and purposes. Innovations in designs and applications march on: PV-integrated buildings; micro wind turbines-integrated high-rise buildings; backyard (or frontyard) tree-shaped micro wind power plants and solar trees; microgrids; community solar;  combined wind turbines-agricultural farms; utility scale PV field-agricultural farms; PV-wind hybrid energy farms; floating solar plants; solar-powered floating farms; the Passive House designs with highly efficient solar heating and cooling systems; the list goes on. Integrated designs are dramatically augmenting land use and conservation by producing energy and food simultaneously — a critical advantage especially where land is scarce. Furthermore, thanks to Tesla, Sonnen and other battery systems, the recent advancements in storage technologies are removing one of the major bottlenecks by supplying ever larger volumes of energy reliably and consistently from intermittent renewable energy sources — sunlight and wind — for both household and utility purposes. Large volumes of energy storage in compact batteries are dramatically enhancing stand-alone and distributed generation options. Repeated scientific studies, field-tested, confirm the revolutionary prospect of renewable energy. The Energy Report: 100% Renewable Energy by 2050, released in 2011 by the World Wildlife Fund, puts it this way: ‘By 2050, we could get all the energy we need from renewable sources. This report shows that such a transition is not only possible but also cost-effective, providing energy that is affordable for all and producing it in ways that can be sustained by the global economy and the planet.’ And, ‘Nuclear power and fossil fuels are the choices of the past. Renewable energy is the choice of the future that is here today,’ said Hermann Scheer, chairman of EUROSOLAR, General Chairman of the World Council of Renewable Energy, president of the International Parliamentary Forum on Renewable Energies, Member of the German Bundestag, and author of A Solar Manifesto and Energy Autonomy: The Economic, Social and Technological Case for Renewable Energy. 

Consequently, countries, such as Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Iceland, Scotland and the Maldives — all pioneers in setting their goals of becoming 100 per cent renewable energy powered nations by 2050, are setting a trend for other countries to follow. A global awareness of the urgent need to transition to the renewable path is fuelling a growing social movement engaging individuals, communities, educational and faith-based institutions, businesses, industries, cities, states and national governments to launch renewable energy programs, policies and practices. The global energy scenario is undergoing a rapid transition toward renewables with growing opportunities and advantages: plummeting costs; innovation in manufacturing, efficiency, durability, designs, storage and applications; job creation; affordable financing; and global accessibility of renewable energy technologies that are fuelling a revolutionary movement and march toward a renewable energy future of innovation, economic prosperity, environmental stewardship and peace. The 2015 marked a record breaking year for renewable energy, accounting for more than half of new power generation worldwide. According to the International Energy Agency, in 2015 global renewable energy investment, most of it in solar and wind power, reached $313 billion, making renewables the largest source of investment in the power sector.

Even Saudi Arabia, the land of oil, alarmed by the finding that it may run out of oil by 2030, has committed more than $100 billion to generate 41 gigawatts of solar energy —enough to power one-third of the country, by 2030. Saudi Prince Turki Al Faisal (at the age of 68) announced at the World Economic Forum, held in October 2012 in Brazil that he would like to see his country powered 100 per cent by renewables within his lifetime.

China, heavily dependent on nonrenewables, nevertheless, has set renewable energy targets of such impressive magnitudes that they could make the need to rely on nonrenewables obsolete. China is already the world’s leading producer, user and supplier of renewable energy technologies.  Inside the country, solar installations are multiplying. According to China’s National Energy Administration, by mid-2014 China generated 23 gigawatts of energy from solar, toward the goal of generating 150 gigawatts by the end of 2020. The country’s intention to wean itself out of fossil fuel consumption is commendable. At the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference or COP21 in Paris, president of China Xi Jinping pledged that China will reduce carbon emissions by 60 per cent by 2030. He further urged the world leaders attending the conference to be mindful that ‘the Paris conference is not the finishing line, but a new starting point’ for global efforts to combat rising carbon emissions. 

India — also heavily dependent on nonrenewables, though not without opposition — has launched one of the most ambitious and comprehensive renewable energy programs in the world. Through the country's Ministry of New and Renewable Energy and its implementing agencies, such as Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency, India's renewable energy program integrates PV, wind turbines, micro hydros, solar thermal systems for hot water, biogas plants, biomass cogenerators and gasifiers, and ‘Improved (or Unnata) Chulhas.’ It also offers an attractive package of financing and other incentives. It’s a good example of Public-Private Partnership. In 2015, with a 12 MW PV system, the Cochin International Airport in Kerala became the world’s first airport to be completely powered by solar. India now has a plan to convert all its airports to solar power. India also demonstrates the incredible range of scalability of PV, from under 5-watt stand-alone systems to the world’s largest, 648 MW, PV power plant in Tamil Nadu.  Inaugurated on September 21, 2016, the plant was constructed in 8 months, at the cost of $679 million. Consisting of 2.5 million solar modules spread over 2,500 acres, it powers 150,000 homes. To expedite the transition, India has also announced a $100 billion investment push into the renewable energy sector, with 100 GW of solar capacity, by 2022.

France, the world’s most nuclear-power dependent country, is turning toward renewables. Alongside Russia it has been a main promoter of nuclear power around the world. To avoid the OPEC-controlled oil dependency, France turned to nuclear, resulting in it’s currently 77 per cent electricity generation from 58 reactors. The rest of its electricity generation comes from renewables (15 per cent) and fossil fuels (8 per cent). But growing concerns over security, accidents, long-term waste disposal, decommissioning costs, high costs of refurbishing aging reactors or building new reactors, etc., are not only compelling France to phase out nuclear power, but — according to a report commissioned by France’s Agency for Environment and Energy Management — also to aim for 100 per cent renewable electricity by 2050, which the agency deems possible. Toward that direction, France has launched ‘Positive Energy’ initiative, to convert or construct ‘Net Zero’ and ‘Energy Surplus’ buildings, powered by renewables. Speaking at a seminar, ‘Will Renewables Renew Democracy?’ held at the Ash Centre for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School on February 10, 2016, Gerard Araud, French Ambassador to the United States, applauded that globally a renewable revolution was already unfolding. Then he enthusiastically announced: ‘France wants to be part of the revolution.’

Several other countries — Austria, Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, the Philippines and Sweden — have decided to phase out nuclear power. Switzerland plans to be nuclear power free by 2050, the date by which the country has already decided to transition to 100 percent renewables. South Korea has launched ‘One Less Nuclear Power Plant’, a government-citizen participatory policy to engage citizens directly in energy conservation, efficiency and renewable energy generation, as an alternative to the nuclear option. In May 2015, Finland cancelled the order to build the Olkiluoto 4 nuclear reactor, a French-made Generation III Evolutionary Power Reactor, touted to be safer and more economically competitive than earlier generation reactors. In the US, the once booming nuclear industry is practically dead as a growth industry. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011 and the Chernobyl Disaster in the Ukraine in 1986, at an incalculable human and environmental cost and irreparable damages, sent a chilling warning around the world. Simultaneously anti-nuclear and pro-renewables movements are stronger than ever in both the countries.

The industrially developing countries are waking up to the revolutionary potential of renewables in their own practically ‘untapped energy mines’ of abundant renewable energy resources. Mostly located in tropical and semi-tropical regions, which are also far less entrenched into the nonrenewable energy path than their industrially developed counterparts, these countries are in an especially advantageous position to transition to the renewable energy path. It’s an ‘opportunity cost advantage’ they cannot afford to pass up. It is also an opportunity to avoid — at least, minimize — the ‘entrenchment cost’ which the developed countries are already burdened with — and burdening the world with — because of their deep entrenchment into the nonrenewable path — a long term total cost that will far outweigh the short term economic benefits derived from the entrenchment. However, they do face myriad challenges: politics behind closed doors; a lack of transparency in the national decision making process; poor and dictatorial governance; cancerous corruption; a misguided and nearsighted notion of ‘Development’ — which turns economic development against the environment, ruining both, and a notion — consequently a trap — that ‘Developed’ countries themselves are desperately trying to free themselves from; the vested interest of the industrial elites in nonrenewables; inadequate public and scientific knowledge and infrastructures to critically evaluate energy options; and lacking adequate education about the nature, prospect and innovation in renewable energy options. The inadequacies make the developing countries especially susceptible to becoming dumping grounds for building fossil fuel and nuclear power plants — rationalized through foreign experts and consultants who are there to basically peddle the technologies — especially when these are under strong scrutiny or losing markets by being phased out in ‘developed’ countries, or simply going bankrupt. And in many cases, the benefits of such energy projects are skewed more in favour of the project funders, while subjecting the developing countries to long-term debt-traps.

So, against huge opposition from scientists, environmentalists and the general public, expatriates around the world, and several international expert reviews of the decision, why is the Bangladesh government insisting on its decision to move ahead with the coal and nuclear power plants? I think I have already speculated some answers in the preceding sections. While the opposition movement against the Rampal plant mainly focuses on protecting the Sundarbans from its probable harmful impact — a reason enough — the point is, a coal or a nuclear power plant is absolutely unnecessary for Bangladesh, especially for a country so richly endowed with renewable energy sources. Sunlight is abundant year-round in this semi-tropical region. Even during the monsoon season the solar radiation is as good as the annual average. In addition to ample light and heat, the hundred-plus-mile long coastal areas, hilly sections, and islands provide plenty of wind for wind turbines; waterways of varied forms and speed provide sufficient wave and gravity driven water flow for ecologically balanced hydro-electric generators; and the lush vegetation provides rich photosynthesis and biomass for fuel for a variety of purposes. Compared to Germany — an inspiring example of a country set on a 100 per cent transition to the renewable energy path — Bangladesh receives twice the amount of solar radiation than Germany. Bangladesh is truly an exceptional, naturally endowed and integrated, renewable “energy mine” — practically untapped!

I am aware of the impressive unfolding renewable energy scenario in Bangladesh since the late 1980s. Multiple players — NGOs, commercial companies, schools, colleges, universities, business owners, community and social service organisations, environmental organisations, donor agencies, activist groups, home owners,  journalists, educators, the media, semi-governmental organisations, national governmental agencies and others have made that possible. I cherish the opportunity to have been able to contribute to it. That scenario must be urgently expanded. Energy is a lifeline of the economy and development fundamentally depends on renewables. And ‘development’, in the true sense, is going forward, not backward; it’s progress, not regress — what resorting to the fossil-nuclear path implies. Especially in Bangladesh — one of the countries which is most vulnerable to climate change and one of the most densely populated countries in the world — the fossil-nuclear path is not only an antithesis to true development, or survival, it’s suicidal. It’s time to ‘Think globally, act locally.’ And, embracing what H. G. Wells said: ‘Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe,’ and rising above conflicts and confrontation, instead, we must engage in a transparent, authentic and reciprocal dialogue — as it should be in any democracy — and act! The entire nation and its future depend on it. Time is of the essence. 


Sajed Kamal, EdD, author of The Renewable Revolution: How We Can Fight Climate Change, Prevent Energy Wars, Revitalize the Economy and Transition to a Sustainable Future and The Untapped Energy Mine: The Revolutionary Scope of Renewable Energy to Fight Climate Change, Revitalize the Economy and Gain Energy Independence for Bangladesh, has been involved in the renewable energy field internationally for more than thirty years, setting up projects in the USA, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Armenia and El Salvador. He has also taught at universities including Brandeis University, Boston University, Northeastern University and Antioch New England. In 2007 he was awarded Boston ‘Mayor’s First Annual Green Award for Community Leadership in Energy and Climate Protection’, in 2008 a ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ by the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, and in 2012 the ‘Rachel Carson Award’ by Massachusetts Interfaith Power & Light.


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