Solar Bangla for Sonar Bangla

Dhaka,  Sun,  23 October 2016
Published : 17 Oct 2016, 21:07:16 | Updated : 17 Oct 2016, 21:07:35

Solar Bangla for Sonar Bangla

Meraz Mostafa
For those of you who have travelled the large rivers of Bangladesh, you know how they light up at night.

From faraway, it looks like there are great cities shimmering on the banks of the river. Only as you get closer do you realise the lights you see are not cities at all, but lightbulbs on small fishing boats and buoys floating on the water.

Off-the-grid solar energy has transformed rural Bangladesh. As Mahmood Malik - chief executive of the solar distribution company, Infrastructure Development Company Limited -explained, it is "a silent revolution you can't feel sitting in the city [Dhaka]".

Over four million families now have enough power to either turn on several lights, a few fans, charge a phone and sometimes even a small television.

If you are reading this article on a computer, or like me grew up with electricity most of your life, this may not seem like much. But you have to think about it from the point of view of the millions of villagers who have never had such access to electricity before. For them, the day no longer ends when the sun goes down - it continues well into the night, allowing children to study, parents to watch television and turn on a fan when the warm humid nights become unbearable.

Off-the-grid solar power has immense potential in Bangladesh and we are only starting to see what's possible. The technology works in part because it is relatively low cost and easy to use. This means rural people, and smaller non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and entrepreneurs are able to adapt the technology to their own needs, whether in powering their homes, their fishing boats, their shops, or even their schools.

Last year, a Bangladeshi-run NGO - Light of Hope - won the Energy Globe Award for Sustainability for using solar power to create multimedia classrooms in schools that otherwise had no electricity. Consuming only 60W, the NGO used energy from the sun to power a laptop (with educational content), a mini-projector, a projection board, speakers and a LED bulb.

And this year a German-Bangladeshi company, ME SOLshare, won a top UN climate award for their creation of 'solar villages'. These operate by connecting the various solar panels in people's houses onto a local energy grid, which allows users to trade surplus energy with their neighbours.

Beyond these award-winning innovations, there are solar irrigation pumps, solar lanterns for rickshaws, and even solar powered street lamps. The possibilities seem endless.

But questions remain about the future of off-the-grid solar energy in Bangladesh.

Current development plans also do not project Bangladesh to become a primarily solar-powered nation anytime soon. Instead, the country is planning to meet most of its energy needs through natural gas and imported coal.

While these may meet the country's energy needs over the next few decades, in the long run, such reliance on fossil fuels is unsustainable. Coal and natural gas are finite resources, and as they become scarcer and harder to mine, they become more expensive. This is one of the reasons coal has seen a sharp decline in the United States, according to the climate news site, Climate Nexus.

And of course, the other major drawback of burning fossil fuels is that it contributes to climate change, which is going to severely challenge Bangladesh's ability to develop in any way or form - whether in eradicating poverty or ensuring food security. 

The best way for Bangladesh to develop sustainably is to rely on renewable energy as much as possible. This is tricky in a country where there is barely enough land to house the total population, let alone find more room for renewable energy infrastructure.

But that does not mean solar power cannot be expanded in novel ways. "We have plenty of rooftops," suggests Saiful Alam, director of Dhaka University's Energy Institute, "enough to produce 3000 megawatts."

As global leaders once again get ready to convene at the UN climate talks, this year in Morocco, which incidentally is building the world's largest solar thermal power plant in the Sahara desert, it is a timely reminder for our country's policymakers to invest in renewable energy as much as possible.

This is the only way we are going to achieve dream of Sonar Bangla (Golden Bengal). Though the phrase, inscribed in our national anthem, means different things to different people: For me, it is the millions of fishing boats that go out at night, powered quietly by the energy of the sun.

A golden Bangladesh is a sustainable one.

Meraz Mostafa works at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development at the Independent University, Bangladesh.

Editor : A.H.M Moazzem Hossain
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