OPINION: Is 100% renewable energy feasible?

DHAKA (The Daily Star/ANN) - In Bangladesh, a new generation of entrepreneurs and engineers are pioneering the biggest deployment of solar home systems in the world.

Midway through the two-week-long 22nd Conference of Parties (COP22)
of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)
held in November 2016 in Marrakech, Morocco, the presidential election
results in the USA were announced. The result, Trump winning the
election, was like a bombshell in the COP.

First, US citizens, both in the official government delegation and
others, were in complete shock, with many in tears! So the rest of us
adopted a be-nice-to-an-American policy.

The first reaction was from the media wanting to know what the
reaction in the COP would be. The stabilising reaction came from the
Chinese leadership who firmly declared they would carry on and fulfil
their commitments under the Paris Agreement. This was followed by
country after country doing the same.

Then in the second week—the high level segment of the COP—the then US
Secretary of State John Kerry arrived and brought his negotiating team
together, reminding them that their president was still Obama and they
had instructions to negotiate the implementation of the Paris Agreement
and that was what they would do. If the US policy changed after Trump
occupies the White House, it wouldn't happen for several more months.

Hence by the end of COP22 the world was in an optimistic mood and
since then the implementation of the Paris Agreement has been going
forward despite Trump's withdrawal.

One of the major factors behind this positive end to the COP22 was a
declaration on the last day by 50 of the most vulnerable developing
countries belonging to the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF) to become 100
percent reliant on renewable energy by 2050. Bangladesh, as a prominent
CVF member, played an important role in this declaration and Prime
Minister Sheikh Hasina was herself in Marrakech for that meeting.

The CVF declaration to go to 100 percent renewable by 2050 was
without precondition and was meant to demonstrate global leadership and
to challenge other countries to follow their lead.

However, within the CVF there was considerable debate on whether this
goal was indeed possible. Some countries, led by Costa Rica, wanted the
target date to be 2030, while others felt that it would not be
feasible. In the end the target date of 2050 was agreed upon, on the
basis that it would allow for retiring fossil fuel based energy over the
next three decades.

The issue of how feasible it would be to go 100 renewable is an open
question with proponents as well as sceptics. I am not an energy expert
but will venture to share a few thoughts on whether it is at all
possible and what should Bangladesh's strategy be going forward.

The first point to make is that both solar and wind energy are
basically not limited as an energy source, but rather limited by the
ability of technology to convert those sources to useful energy. The
cost of solar and wind energy conversion technologies is dropping fast
and will become cheaper than energy from fossil fuels quite soon.

The second problem regarding solar and wind is the intermittency
problem, since the sun doesn't shine at night and the wind doesn't blow
all the time. Hence both technologies need to be associated with
batteries to store energy for use during these times. The technology for
storing energy is also rapidly becoming cheaper and bigger in scope.

The third problem for solar in particular is the need for space to
install the solar panels to generate energy. This is certainly an issue
for Bangladesh where land is limited and competition for land is fierce.

However, in my view, the biggest hurdle in making the required
transformation to 100 percent renewable energy is the negative mindset
that many people have about even imagining the possibility. It is also
notable that this negative mindset is mostly associated with older
people and engineers who have grown up on fossil fuel based energy
systems. Younger people, particularly younger engineers, are more
open-minded and willing to think unconventionally. This is particularly
true in Bangladesh where almost the entire older generation of
politicians and engineers are wedded to fossil fuels, while a new
generation of entrepreneurs and engineers are pioneering the biggest
deployment of solar home systems in the world.

The future of energy systems over the next few decades in Bangladesh
will be a struggle between the old and the new and we will see if the
CVF commitment of 100 percent renewable energy dependency will happen in
Bangladesh.

Incidentally, since the CVF declaration in 2016, Costa Rica has
changed its pledge to be completely reliant on renewable energy by 2021,
nine years earlier than their original pledge of 2030. They are being
followed by quite a few other countries and cities around the world.

Saleemul Huq is Director, International Centre for Climate Change and Development at the Independent University, Bangladesh.

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