Mahbub Sumon, a young researcher, climate change and renewable energy activist talks to Nahid Riyasad about the current government’s energy sector plans and his vision of an alternative.
New Age Youth: Tell us why you think you must concentrate on renewable energy?
Mahbub Sumon: Since 2009, a Swedish citizen and researcher Johan Rockstrom with his team have been working with an idea called ‘Planetary Boundaries’. This theory gives us idea of a sustainable environment, defines the limits of extracting resources from the earth to maintain a balance in the environment — how much nitrogen or phosphorus should be released or used as fertiliser in cultivable lands, the bio-diversity needed for the soil to operate properly, the limits of ocean acidity, the amount of forest to fend off natural calamities and more. Now, should any level of planetary boundaries are breached, entire flora and fauna would collapse — an Armageddon. Planetary boundaries have a direct connection with climate change and if we can change the causes, we might solve the problem. As said earlier, CO2 emission is the major cause of climate change, excessive use of fossil fuel like coal and oil is responsible for 69 per cent of this emission. Eleven per cent of this is directly related to agriculture, where, fossil fuel and chemical fertiliser cause the pollution. Chemical fertiliser is produced from petroleum based substances. So, a major enemy of the environment is fossil fuel and renewable energy has enormous potential to replace it. When started to gather knowledge and awareness of such destruction and assault on earth from this mindless abuse of nature, it was like a calling for me.
During 2006-7, I decided to work with renewable energy sector.
New Age Youth: How did you get involved with the drafting of Alternative Power Sector Master Plan?
Mahbub Sumon: It was 2010/11, when planning of a 1320 mega watt power plant in Ramaal near Sundarbans was proposed by the government, we were justifiably very concerned that will destroy the forest. There were other large scale coal projects in the pipeline for implementation. These projects would not only harm our environment, but also pose a great threat to our economy. National Committee to Protect Oil Gas Mineral Resources Power and Ports, by then, started protesting against the project. Their demand was to scrap the project. When the movement to save Sundarbands gained momentum, certain quarters blamed the protesters as proponents of anti-development. However, we only protested against activities in the name of development damaging the nature. Back then, the idea of renewable energy was not very popular or common. Even many progressive quarters protesting at fossil fuel did not have confidence in renewable energy. In this context, I personally started working with schools, colleges and universities to give a clear idea about renewable energy and its potentials. Simultaneously, I started campaigning using different social media platform to educate people. During 2015, National Committee decided to propose an APSMP. As I was in the field since Rampal protests and actively working with different energy sources, I wanted to work on an alternative energy plan. As the timing was perfect, I got involved with the APSMP research team.
New Age Youth: What is the primary ideological and scientific-technological difference between the plan proposed by National Committee and the government?
Mahbub Sumon: The government’s Power Sector Master Plan has three major characteristics. Firstly, it is dependent on almost 100 percent imported basic energy; secondly, it is oblivious of the environmental hazards it poses and heavily dependent of dangerous fossil fuel and nuclear power. Finally, it is by design requires huge investment and involves high production cost making it a great threat to the local economy.
On the other hand, the National Committee’s APSMP provides an alternative energy mix emphasising use of renewable energy and natural gas that can minimise the risk mentioned above. Moreover, 95 per cent of the required raw material could be sourced locally eliminating the environmental hazards and it also promised cheaper, affordable electricity for people, cheaper than what is proposed by the government.
New Age Youth: When many developed countries like Germany are opting for mixed energy, Bangladesh is heading towards more expensive and environmentally hazardous fossil fuel, how do you see Bangladesh’s turn towards coal?
Mahbub Sumon: A major share of our economy comes from the agriculture sector. Land is scarce and the population is excessive. More population means more production is a problematic notion. In fact, this is a very colonial idea. In a struggling economy like Bangladesh with rising income inequality, agriculture, nature, forests, biodiversity and water network operate under great threat. Even, managing any disaster situation becomes more disastrous under such socio-economic condition and population pressure. In case of power sector related disasters, even the richest countries struggle decades after decade. For this reason, many advanced countries are adopting renewable energy sources. From this perspective, going towards almost 100 per cent import based fuel energy as well as nuclear energy for Bangladesh, is nothing but a looming sign of an impending disaster.
New Age Youth: Many power sector experts have feared that Bangladesh is becoming dumping ground of outdated power sector technologies of other large powers like India or Russia? How do you see this issue?
Mahbub Sumon: I have to agree with their opinion. Not only Bangladesh, but also other developing countries like Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar and African nations are a large market place for China, India and Russia’s outdated energy equipments. In case of Bangladesh, land, population and environment make this issue even more critical. As energy sector has a close relation with international market, it is not a surprise that Bangladesh has been targeted by such nations to sell off their outdated equipments. We absolutely cannot allow our land to be their dumping ground.
New Age Youth: Do you think that the government’s PSMP has undermined the importance on renewable energy?
Mahbub Sumon: In the chapter 1, page 61 of PSMP, it is stated, ‘the maximum renewable energy (power generation) potential is up to 3,700MW’. We know that Japan International Cooperation Agency JICA gave technological advice and support in the drafting of this power plan. I am still not clear how they produce such number without any assessment. It may as well be agenda driven, who knows? In reality, reports published from Stanford University Research Group, University of California-Berkeley Research Group, and Netherlands Enterprise Agency show that Bangladesh has potential to produce 140,000 mega watts of electricity from solar and wind power. There are other sources like hydro power, bio waste, municipal solid waste, marine energy et cetera. As PSMP shows the chances of renewable energy ridiculously low, there are fewer chances remain to explore renewable energy.
New Age Youth: One of the main critiques of the National Committee’s master plan that the government’s profit driven demand of energy projection is not challenged here. What is your response to the critique?
Mahbub Sumon: APSMP has multiple goals. Among many, one was to answer the present possible alternative — an alternative energy mix. The question was whether we can meet our total energy demand, as projected in PSMP, through renewable sources by 2041? Or, is it possible to meet the 100 per cent demand of the nation from renewables? The government’s estimation of electricity required by 2041 was overblown. It was nothing but a process to accumulate capital, extracting maximum profit as well as encouraging a consumerist lifestyle. The National Committee and a member of the research team involved in drafting the alternative plan, I think, the demand in reality is much less if you could eliminate the profit mongering vested quarter from the scene. The question of consumption, production and demand is influenced by the ‘development philosophy’ we adopt. What we call development or our future should have a clear connection and collaboration with our surrounding environment. The growth model of development that is adopted in the PSMP disrupts our ecological balance. It is not development. In that case, we need to change our development philosophy.
New Age Youth: There are controversies that renewable cannot meet the demand. In the context of Bangladesh, what are our chances and options to adapt renewable energy sources instead of fossil fuel?
Mahbub Sumon: In the APSMP, we have assessed different renewable energy sources’ availability, implementation of technology, investment and project feasibility for Bangladesh. According to our research, we would be able to produce 65 per cent energy from different renewable source by 2041. However, this is related to energy efficiency and energy storage. At present, there is little use of solar energy in our agricultural sector, if encouraged it could unburden the national grid to a certain extent. In a nutshell, we only need good intention and political commitment as a nation to make a turn towards renewable energy. We need to believe in the dream and strength of our environment, the material infrastructure will evolve with the right intention and we can potentially become a 100 per cent renewable energy producing country by 2060.
New Age Youth: What plans do you have for the future regarding renewable energy?
Mahbub Sumon: Renewable energy is the Holy Grail to solve a plethora of man-made natural problems at this moment. For this, I have been working on climate change, renewable energy and biodiversity issues. Besides, our research team will make a concrete plan for the execution of the APSMP with alternative and contextualised development ideas.
Nahid Riyasad is a member of New Age Youth team
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