As the country has pivoted towards an import-based energy generation, the current economic downturn in terms of sourcing energy supplies threaten to cut power generation significantly before the onset of summer. This is evident from the case of the newly inaugurated Rampal power plant complex (with two power plants with a total capacity of 1,320 megawatts) that is facing trouble operating at full capacity. From what has been reported in media, the 660-megawatt first unit of the jointly owned (Bangladesh-India) Maitree super-thermal power plant has been operating on and off since its inauguration. It depends on imported coal the supply of which has been severely constrained primarily by the ongoing dollar-crunch. Needless to say, a project of this magnitude can hardly be considered fully functional if it operates at a small fraction of its capacity.
Although production has been ramped up to 400 MW, sustaining this momentum depends entirely on the ability to open necessary LC(s) to maintain an uninterrupted supply of coal. Also, one cannot overlook the requirements of the economy at large where everything from basic essentials like cereal, edible oil to raw materials for industry need to be imported. Thus, there is a fierce competition for the dollar, but at the end of the day, industrial production is bound to suffer if energy supplies cannot be ensured. The problems with sourcing foreign currency might deepen as Bangladesh enters into an uncertain 2023, marked by soaring energy prices.
Bangladesh needs to learn from the European experience of depending largely on foreign energy sourcing. The fact that countries in the European common market (EU) have been forced to expend hundreds of billions of dollars in expensive fuel import (primarily LNG import) is not something that not only Bangladesh, but most Asian economies cannot afford. Again the country decided to not explore its own proven and prospective coal fields nearly a decade ago, while opting at later stage to set up several coal-based power plants. This has baffled most energy planners at home. The country has always been a gas-dependent one and most of its energy infrastructure is natural gas-based. Captive gas-based power generation was allowed in industry at subsidised prices and it is extremely difficult to wean off industry from cheap gas.
Today, the country is at a crossroads and there are no easy answers to the problem emanating from the current energy crisis. But one should learn from history and take lessons from the current global scenario regarding sourcing energy supplies from foreign nations. Serious and concerted efforts need to be taken to explore both gas and coal reserves and these efforts must be the new modus operandi. While pockets of gas discovered can be added to the national grid as and when found, coal exploration will be a mid-term affair. There needs to be a new coal policy that will, hopefully, attract FDI, not only to Phulbari but other prospective coal-rich areas in the country. Austerity measures need to be rethought to prioritise energy exploration, for without energy, the wheels of the economy will slow down and Bangladesh risks falling out of the development success model for which it is known globally.