Bangladesh solar power surge set to unlock thousands of green jobs

Analysts say investing heavily in solar energy can bring cost-savings for industry – and create high-quality employment

Md Tahmid ZamiThomson Reuters Foundation
Published : 18 Jan 2024, 11:26 AM
Updated : 18 Jan 2024, 11:26 AM

Solar energy projects take off as costs fall

Thousands of skilled green jobs to be created

Women showing interest in clean tech development

Farzana Akter Isha, 24, works as a production supervisor at SOLshare, a renewable energy technology company that provides home-based solar power solutions to poor, rural families.

When she started her career in 2014 straight after leaving school, Bangladesh's solar sector was facing hiccups with sluggish demand - and Isha saw many of her colleagues switch to other jobs.

But following years of slack progress, renewable energy in Bangladesh has recently seen a strong turnaround on the back of more affordable solar power. That momentum is expected to create 3,000 to 4,000 new green jobs in the next few years.

From rooftop solar projects alone, including industrial and commercial installations, a record 42 megawatts (MW) of new capacity were added in 2023.

In addition, about 10 large-scale grid-connected solar projects mounted on the ground are now operating, with more than 3,000 MW of capacity from both types of project approved or in the final stages of approval.

RENEWABLES SURGE AS PRICES FALL

Experts are predicting a surge in the renewable energy sector in Bangladesh as solar power becomes increasingly cost-effective compared to fossil fuels.

The country has been struggling to pay for its oil and gas imports with shrinking dollar reserves - and rising fuel prices have created pressure on the economy.

In 2023, the government resorted to tripling coal-based generation to tackle the energy crisis, but experts say renewables are a better long-term solution.

Shahriar Ahmed Chowdhury, director of the Centre for Energy Research at United International University (UIU), told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the upsurge in solar installations is being driven by new investors, both local and foreign, entering the market, while the average project size is increasing.

Ground-mounted projects have higher capacity and will give a larger boost to the share of solar in the electricity mix, he added, while rooftop projects - which are cheaper to install - are set for rapid growth on new factories in the 100 economic zones being built around the country.

According to a 2023 report published by BloombergNEF, the cost of solar power generation from utility-scale projects in Bangladesh now stands at $97-135 per megawatt hour (MWh), making it a credible competitor to coal or gas-based power that cost $110-150/MWh and $88-116/MWh respectively.

By 2025, solar power will become the cheapest energy source for the country, the report said.

Chowdhury said recently approved independent solar photovoltaic (PV) projects have a tariff of less than 10 US cents per unit of power, while one unit of liquid fuel-based electricity in Bangladesh costs more than 16 US cents.

The economic advantage of transitioning to solar power is becoming increasingly evident to businesses and the government.

Last month, a report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) showed that the Bangladesh government could save between 52.3 billion taka ($477 million) and 110.32 billion taka ($1 billion) a year if industries, commercial buildings and other establishments installed 2,000 MW of rooftop solar, beyond the 161 MW so far installed.

The savings would come from not having to import expensive fuels like furnace oil and diesel to generate power.

Shafiqul Alam, lead energy analyst for the IEEFA, said that by installing a rooftop solar system, an industrial business could save around Tk 5 per kilowatt hour of electricity during the day, and the rate of savings would be even more for commercial buildings that pay higher tariffs for grid power.

One key problem is a lack of reliable and rigorous estimates for how much solar power can be generated in Bangladesh.

"A true assessment of the country’s rooftop solar potential is essential to understand the investment needed in the sector," said Alam.

That would send the right signals to financial institutions, while the government and solar developers would be able to plan for the transition with more certainty, he added.

POTENTIAL JOBS BOOM

A significant expansion of solar power could mean thousands of new green jobs for engineers, technicians, project managers and manual workers.

A 1 MW solar project can produce 26.6 jobs in the residential sector, 10.1 jobs for commercial projects, and 2.1 jobs for utility-scale solar power, said Chowdhury from UIU.

A study by the Dhaka-based Centre for Policy Dialogue last year estimated that renewable energy could add about 13,800 jobs by 2030 - and if Bangladesh pursued a highly aggressive energy transition, more than 37,000 new jobs could be created.

Skilled people - like engineers and technicians with a few years of experience - are now in high demand as large companies move to invest in green energy.

"Earlier we would have to look for job opportunities, and now companies and headhunting firms reach out to us," said SM Imran Hasan, an experienced engineer working as a solar project manager at the Al-Mostafa Group.

There has also been a shift in the type of jobs, with rising demand for higher technical skills to match evolving technology.

A decade ago, the main pivot of solar power growth in Bangladesh was small-scale solar home systems that could be installed and repaired by low-skilled workers. But most of these are being phased out as larger solar projects are added to the expanding national grid.

Experts said many low-skilled jobs in solar home systems had been shed, but new higher-quality jobs will surpass the losses.

Solar project manager Abdul Arif said Grameen Shakti, the clean energy social enterprise where he works, employed as many as 15,000 people in solar home systems just a decade ago.

But many are now working as entrepreneurs or service providers as the rural economy enjoys better electricity supplies thanks to rooftop solar panels, mini-grids and electric mobility, he added.

MORE ADVANCED SKILLS SOUGHT

Chowdhury from UIU said the installation of large-scale solar PV projects requires workers with more advanced engineering and technical skills, while low-skilled workers can be recruited for maintenance and security of the solar plants.

"Ultimately, the total employment in this industry will increase and can exceed the previous levels as (it) grows," he said.

The skills shift calls for better training of workers and technicians, industry experts said.

Nuher L Khan, managing director of Joules Power Limited, a leading solar energy company in Bangladesh, said recruiters are aiming to support young workers to acquire the right skills and orientation.

"We try to recruit fresh graduates so that engineering and business students look at the renewables sector as a prospective sector where they can build their career," he said.

The growing demand for skilled labour may also open a door for young women like Isha with relevant technical qualifications in a sector that has so far offered them fewer opportunities.

Isha said her workplace SOLshare - which has an all-female production team - is setting an example by showing that women with the right skills can shine in the solar sector.

She mentors her female co-workers to take on more technical challenges, which is slowly bearing good results.

"These days women are also showing interest in tech-based work, including the heavy work of developing technology," she said.