Is It Possible to Achieve Energy Democracy in Bangladesh? -Zulker Naeen

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Energy access has long been recognized as a key struggle for justice in the global south, driven by a number of immediate causes, most obviously rising bills, falling incomes, and poor quality housing. Underpinning these direct factors, we can discuss our present status in terms of the energy security, which is the association between national security and the availability of natural resources for energy consumption. As we are on the cusp of an energy revolution, the concept of ‘Energy Democracy’ should be highlighted to improve the quality of life for the world’s most disadvantaged and poor.

What is Energy Democracy?
Energy democracy means that everybody is ensured access to sufficient energy. Energy production must thereby neither pollute the environment nor harm people. This means that fossil fuel resources must be left in the ground, the means of production need to be socialized and democratized, and we must rethink our overall attitude towards energy consumption.

Why does Energy Democracy matter in Bangladesh?
Firstly, the income inequality, it is estimated that the underground economy in Bangladesh is equivalent to a quarter of the country’s GDP. An estimated 38 percent of people in the country live below the poverty line of which almost a third live in extreme poverty. The poverty rate is higher in rural areas than in urban areas. Secondly, the power imbalance, inadequate grid and severe power deficits everywhere – lack of functional grid electricity in rural Bangladesh and power cuts and load shedding in the urban area. Thirdly, Bangladesh now ranks No. 179 out of 180 countries in the Environmental Performance Index 2018, with the fast-tracking of environmental clearances to improve our standing in the Ease of Doing Business rankings! And, finally, we are committed to the Paris Agreement by curbing our increasing GHG emissions as committed in the Paris Climate Treaty that we signed and ratified.

How to achieve Energy Democracy in Bangladesh?
Energy democracy in action has traditionally been located at the small-scale through the distributed-energy technologies and the community renewable energy co-operatives. However, more recent years have opened up new possibilities for energy democracy at both the rural and urban level.

Distributed-Energy Technologies
Distributed-energy technologies such as micro-grids can provide an electricity-deprived citizen with power — and the ability to create income. This pathway to power delivery is a disruptive force that will forever change the relationship between electricity user and producer. It makes it possible for a citizen with little capital to bypass the heavy hand of bureaucracy and authoritarian dictators. These decentralized energy systems give households the ability to negotiate directly with energy entrepreneurs and access electricity on a pay-as-you-go basis.
In Bangladesh, the solar home system is a great example of distributed-energy technology, where over four million solar home systems have been distributed over the last five years. About 150 megawatts of electricity servicing close to 20 million people now; however, the aim was to generate 220 megawatts of electricity by 2017 through the solar home system program.
The use of solar energy in irrigation is popular now, can be identified as one of the decentralized energy systems. Already, over 600 solar irrigation pumps have been installed by IDCOL and it plans to set up more than 1500 pumps within 2018.

Energy co-operatives
Energy co-operatives are companies governed by their members: individuals who invest in the co-op to fund new renewable energy production, or consumers who buy power from the co-op. Energy generated is usually sold back to the national grid, although the possibility for local energy markets is now opening up. In countries where community energy has flourished, this has largely been due to “Feed in Tariffs”: subsidies to offer co-operatives a generous rate for the energy they sell to the grid.
Energy co-operatives are rapidly multiplying across the globe, allowing millions of people to become active producers of the energy they use. However, co-operatives are still, in a sense, a form of private control: while co-operatives often decide to re-invest substantial proportions of their revenues in social and environmental causes and the local economy, the remaining revenue is distributed as profit to individual members.
Still, co-operatives remain one important alternative to corporate control. One fruitful area for further exploration is the potential for partnerships between the state and co-operatives.

Conclusion
In Bangladesh, traditionally, electrification has occurred by extending the electrical grid. But this has not been effective for populations that are geographically, economically or politically isolated. Consequently, we need to prioritize more decentralized energy systems amid the energy co-operatives to provide different levels of service for unique needs in our country.
We know the transition from zero electricity access to a minimal level of access can empower people. Micro-grids are the next key to the energy access, can power lights, fans, irrigation pumps, and open pathways for income-generating opportunities.
However, as a nation, Bangladesh is yet to achieve its going-renewables-goal, still remains insignificant of total power generation. In fact, the concept of energy democracy may advance the decentralized energy systems for us, which consider energy as—both fossil fuels and renewables—is not simply a commodity to be bought and sold. It is part of the commons—a precious global resource that must be respected, conserved and equitably shared.
Considering to energy democracy, the promise of energy for all is a priority; however, we could not change our perception about energy access embracing the low-cost clean-energy solutions. But for us, it can help bring the disenfranchised into the mainstream economy. However, the promises of energy sector decentralization as a democratic force should neither be underestimated nor ignored for long.

The writer, a communication graduate from University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB), is a freelance journalist at Climate Tracker, email: naeenzulker@gmail.com.

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