NEWS The superior choice: Bangladesh and India should build solar farms, not coal plants, on both sides of the border

Dr Saleemul Huq and Daniel Kammen

For a pdf of this arti­cle, access the RAEL pub­li­ca­tions page link: or just click here.

Last week, Bangladesh’s Pow­er Devel­op­ment Board (PDB) and Indi­a’s Nation­al Ther­mal Pow­er Cor­po­ra­tion (NTPC) announced that they will form a com­mit­tee to decide whether to build a large coal plant or solar farm in India for addi­tion­al pow­er import into Bangladesh. Going by the numbers—economic, job cre­ation and environmental—there real­ly should be no debate. The choice is solar.

The facil­i­ty will be run by the Bangladesh India Friend­ship Pow­er Com­pa­ny, which was ini­tial­ly formed to build the con­tro­ver­sial 1320MW coal-fired pow­er plant near Ram­pal, Khul­na. The fact that PDB and NTPC might seri­ous­ly com­pare the costs and ben­e­fits of coal ver­sus solar PV for the first time is good news for cit­i­zens of both countries.

Here are three unde­ni­able rea­sons why solar farms are the supe­ri­or choice to coal plants in both countries.



Renew­able ener­gy costs in India have fall­en by 50 per­cent in two years, and are fore­cast to con­tin­ue drop­ping apace. New wind and solar is now 20 per­cent cheap­er than exist­ing coal-fired gen­er­a­tion’s aver­age whole­sale pow­er price, and 65 per­cent of Indi­a’s coal pow­er gen­er­a­tion is being sold at high­er rates than new renew­able ener­gy bids in com­pet­i­tive pow­er auc­tions. Bangladesh would save mon­ey in the short- and long-term by devel­op­ing its own solar resources as well as by import­ing solar-gen­er­at­ed elec­tric­i­ty from India, and using its exist­ing gas-fired pow­er plants at night to back up solar power.

Our inter­na­tion­al team of researchers at the Inter­na­tion­al Cen­tre for Cli­mate Change and Devel­op­ment and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley are about to pub­lish ground­break­ing maps of Bangladesh that indi­cate poten­tial areas for solar and wind ener­gy projects. After exclud­ing all areas like­ly to be envi­ron­men­tal­ly or social­ly unac­cept­able for such projects, we found that there is far more util­i­ty solar ener­gy poten­tial than pre­vi­ous­ly esti­mat­ed, at costs low­er than new coal power.

In 2016, elec­tric­i­ty demand in Bangladesh was 11.4GW, most­ly com­ing from nat­ur­al gas. The gov­ern­ment of Bangladesh cur­rent­ly plans to devel­op 13.3GW of new ther­mal coal by 2021, and less than 2GW of solar farms. But Bangladesh could replace all 13.3GW of planned coal plants with solar farms at 20 per­cent low­er costs than new coal plants.

Solar farms can be built much faster than coal plants, and bat­tery stor­age isn’t need­ed as long as solar com­pris­es less than 20 per­cent of the grid. Solar resources are free and defla­tion­ary, while coal is infla­tion­ary and sub­ject to price hikes. Over­all, solar PV is excel­lent finan­cial news for elec­tric­i­ty con­sumers and gov­ern­ments, and PV costs are expect­ed to keep falling, in line with Indi­a’s experience.


Our study makes clear that solar farms can sup­ply 13.3GW of ener­gy with­out con­vert­ing large areas of pre­cious agri­cul­tur­al lands. Solar plants can now be designed with space between the pan­els to allow for fish ponds or crop pro­duc­tion, pre­vent­ing impacts on food secu­ri­ty and farmers.


Choos­ing solar farms will avoid the wide­spread tox­ic con­t­a­m­i­na­tion of air with sul­fur diox­ide, nitro­gen oxides and par­tic­u­lates that come from even the best coal plants, spar­ing tens of thou­sands of Indi­ans and Bangladeshis from pre­ma­ture deaths, low birth­weight babies, heart attacks, res­pi­ra­to­ry dis­ease, and can­cer. Mer­cury spewed from coal plants falls on rice fields and wet­lands, con­cen­trat­ing in rice grains as well as fish, crus­taceans and shell­fish. Preg­nant women eat­ing these con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed foods have babies with birth defects and per­ma­nent brain damage.

Solar farms also avoid coal ash waste dumps that pol­lute down­stream ecosys­tems like the Sun­dar­bans man­groves, which pro­tect mil­lions of peo­ple in both coun­tries from floods, storm surges, and cyclones. The pro­posed coal plant at Ram­pal alone is pre­dict­ed to cause an addi­tion­al 6,000 pre­ma­ture deaths as far away as Dha­ka and Kolkata; low birth weight of 24,000 babies; and spew 10 tonnes of mer­cury into the air or water, threat­en­ing Sun­dar­bans and Bay of Ben­gal fisheries.

Burn­ing coal is the largest source of green­house gas, warm­ing the ocean and melt­ing sea ice at the poles. Low-lying Bangladesh is one of the most vul­ner­a­ble coun­tries on earth to the impacts of cli­mate change. These effects on our cli­mate cause dead­ly storms, floods, droughts, extreme heat waves, sea lev­el rise, salin­i­fi­ca­tion, and deser­ti­fi­ca­tion. Bangladesh has com­mit­ted to 100 per­cent renew­able ener­gy by 2030 pend­ing inter­na­tion­al sup­port; and a five per­cent reduc­tion of green­house gas emis­sions from the pow­er, indus­try and trans­port sec­tor by 2021. These glob­al effects are impor­tant, but they pale in com­par­i­son to the local health impacts and the water costs alone.

Bangladesh and India can bet­ter meet their goals for sus­tain­able elec­tric­i­ty for all, sus­tain­able devel­op­ment and cli­mate jus­tice by chan­nelling invest­ment into cheap­er, well-planned solar farms than into coal-fired pow­er plants.

For a pdf of this arti­cle, access the RAEL pub­li­ca­tions page link: or just click here.

Dr Saleemul Huq is Direc­tor, Inter­na­tion­al Cen­tre for Cli­mate Change and Devel­op­ment, Inde­pen­dent Uni­ver­si­ty, Bangladesh. Pro­fes­sor Dan Kam­men is Direc­tor, Renew­able and Appro­pri­ate Ener­gy Lab­o­ra­to­ry, Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia Berke­ley, and until August 2017 served as Sci­ence Envoy for the US Sec­re­tary of State. Email: saleemul.​huq@​iied.​org; kammen@​berkeley.​edu

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