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Bangladesh: Solar irrigation leads move to low-carbon energy sourcing

Solar-powered irrigation pumps in Bangladesh have become a viable alternative in irrigation during dry season to diesel-fired pumps that emit carbon dioxide. 

Experts think that making low-cost, efficient solar systems available by waiving taxes and ensuring land for the installation of solar panels would help to extend renewable energy coverage to ensure food safety.

A World Bank report estimated in 2015 that there were 1.34 million diesel-fired and 2,70,000 electric irrigation pumps covering 3.4 hectares of cropland in Bangladesh.

The Sustainable and Renewable Energy Development Authority director Sheikh Reaz Ahmed said that the government had planned to replace at least 10,000 diesel-fired pumps with solar-powered ones by 2020 to reduce the use of fossil fuel to check against carbon emissions.

The Bangladesh Petroleum Corporation chairman Akram Al Hossain said that the corporation had sold 522,989 tonnes of diesel for irrigation between December 2017 and May 2018, the typical dry season, and the government had given Tk 645 million in subsidy to make diesel affordable to farmers in the 2017–18 financial year. 

Bangladesh Power Development Board officials said that the electric irrigation pumps consumed about 1,500MW, putting an extra burden on power generation.

To capitalise 4.5 kilowatts of solar irradiation on every square kilometre, power generation through photovoltaic panel or solar panel is gaining momentum, they said. 

In the Power Sector Master Plan 2016, the government has envisioned 10 per cent of the estimated 24000MW power generation from renewable sources by 2021 when solar energy, if the master plan is implemented, would contribute about 1700MW. 

Sustainable and Renewable Energy Development Authority officials said that the government in its 7th Five-Year Plan had set a target to replace the diesel-fired pumps with solar pumps in phases. 

Since 2012, 999 solar irrigation pumps have been installed on off-grid locations in Rangpur, Rajshahi, Khulna, Mymensingh, Chittagong and Dhaka divisions, they said.

Identifying the potential of solar irrigation pumps, the state-run lending organisation Infrastructure Development Company Limited has set a target to install 50,000 solar irrigation pumps by 2025.

Since 2013, the company has approved the installation of 1,119 solar irrigation pumps, with 925 of them already being in operation and the rest under way, said its executive director and chief executive officer Mahmood Malik. 

He said that operational pumps could supply 15–20 lakh litres of water a day.

The company disbursed about Tk 2.24 billion, including Tk 1.14 billion in grants and Tk 834 million in loans, to facilitate the installation of solar irrigation pumps, company officials said. 

The World Bank channelled the money to the company from the International Development Association funds and the Bangladesh Climate Change Resilience Funds, the Global Partnership for Output Based Aid and the United States Agency for International Development, they added.

For the installation of a solar irrigation pump, an installer needs to invest 15 per cent of the project cost in equity and the company provides 50 per cent in grant and 35 per cent in loans at a 6 per cent interest rate for 10 years, the officials said.

IDCOL facilitates the installation of solar irrigation pumps through 17 engineering, procurement, construction contractors, including Rahimafrooz Renewable Energy Ltd. 

The head of sales at Rahimafrooz Syed Ishtiaque Ahmed said that farmers growing more than two crops were showing interest in the installation of solar irrigation pumps as it reduces irrigation cost by Tk 200–500 for 0.33 acres of land. 

Atikur Rahman, one of the 26 farmers of Pirganj in Rangpur who installed a 10kilohartz solar irrigation pump at a cost of Tk 2.6 million, said that the pump could produce one million litres of water for the irrigation of 25 acres of land cultivated by 75 farmers. 

Irrigation with a diesel-fired pump costs Tk 2,100 in diesel price and Tk 1,200 in service charge to irrigate 0.33 acres of land in a season. 

‘For the past two seasons, the farmers have been happy with the solar irrigation as it ensures uninterrupted water supply,’ Atikur said.

As farmers are showing interest in solar irrigation pumps, experts think that the scarcity of land for the installation of solar panels should be addressed and levies imposed on solar system import should be withdrawn for the expansion of the renewable energy coverage.

Rahimafrooz officials said that the installation of a solar irrigation pump needed 5–10 decimal land.
The government in the national budget for 2018–19 imposed 26.67 per cent levy on solar panel import which the installers found discouraging. 

On June 26, IDCOL requested the National Board of Revenue to withdraw the levy. 
The Sustainable and Renewable Energy Development Authority and the power division also wrote to the revenue board requesting tax exemption on solar system import.

The power division’s joint secretary (renewable energy) Mohammad Alauddin said that the revenue board only withdrew the 15 per cent value added tax.

Experts think that a total tax exemption for the solar power industry is crucial to attract investment. 
According to the Policy Research Institute Bangladesh, investments in solar projects rose from $158 million in 2015 to $223 million in 2016.