In Bangladesh, solar power brings work, but land shortage slows growth

A man stands with his arms folded in front of solar panels on a rooftop

Shahriar Ahmed Chowdhury a leading solar expert, stands before solar panels at the rooftop of his institute, Dhaka, Bangladesh, August 9, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation / Md Tahmid Zami

What’s the context?

Solar home systems have brought electric power to millions, but a lack of land and finance are hampering the development of large-scale plants.

  • Rising fuel prices drive power cuts and reliance on home solar
  • Rooftop solar systems have high potential, experts say
  • Government urged to find more land for solar parks

DHAKA - Topu Roy's family did not have electricity until around 2005 when his parents set up a solar power system at their home in Dinajpur, in northern Bangladesh, to run lights and fans.

In the past two decades, some 6 million solar home systems have been installed across the country, bringing electricity to remote off-grid communities.

"It is a remarkable success story," said Shahriar Ahmed Chowdhury, director of the Centre for Energy Research at Bangladesh's United International University.

For the fast-developing South Asian nation, solar power has brought benefits for citizens while creating jobs. But the sector's growth has been constrained by bottlenecks such as a lack of land on which to build large-scale plants.

Grid power finally reached Roy's village in 2020 under a government programme to electrify the whole country by 2021, enabling residents to use a range of electric appliances for the first time.

"But with the recent power crisis in Bangladesh, we are back to square one, resorting to the solar home system as grid power is mostly off," said the 25-year-old student.

Millions of Bangladeshis are doing the same to cope with severe outages, caused by a recent power crisis amid extreme heat and high fuel prices, with rural areas bearing the brunt.

Bakirul Islam, 21, a student from Mymensingh, north of Dhaka, said he is now getting only two to three hours of grid power per day and is also relying on a solar home system.

Hikes in fuel prices globally have destabilised energy policy in Bangladesh, which imports about a quarter of its natural gas supply, sparking calls for a more diversified energy mix including a greater focus on renewables, especially solar.

The country has little more than 900 megawatts (MW) of renewables capacity, out of total power capacity of 25,700 MW, falling far short of a target to achieve 10% of generation from clean energy sources by 2020.

Last year the power ministry announced a more ambitious goal to source 40% of the nation's electricity from renewables by 2041, with solar viewed as having the highest potential.

Ground mounted solar panels face the sun

Ground mounted panels face the sun in the 50-megawatt solar park in Mymensingh, Bangladesh, August 13, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Md Tahmid Zami

Ground mounted panels face the sun in the 50-megawatt solar park in Mymensingh, Bangladesh, August 13, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Md Tahmid Zami

Business case

Solar energy development has lagged partly because it was expensive a decade ago, at more than $0.16 per kilowatt-hour, said Ijaz Hossain, a professor at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET).

But the price has since plunged, making solar cheaper than using imported fuels like coal, heavy fuel oil or diesel, said Chowdhury of the Centre for Energy Research.

The recent rise in fossil fuel prices means industry can now save a lot of money by adopting solar power, said Ziaur Rahman Khan, another BUET professor.

With rooftop solar, 1 kilowatt hour of electricity costs about 4 taka ($0.04) for a commercial or industrial user, compared with 8-11 taka per unit for grid power, said Md. Rashedul Alam, assistant director at the Sustainable and Renewable Energy Development Authority, a Bangladesh government agency.

Estimates of Bangladesh's solar energy potential support a larger-scale push into power from the sun, experts say.

A National Solar Energy Roadmap, drafted in 2020 with the United Nations Development Programme, calculated that 6,000 MW could be generated from solar by 2041 in a business-as-usual scenario - and with aggressive policies, as much as 30,000 MW.

The report offers key policy pointers, such as the "very real opportunities" of rooftop solar installations, said Farseem Mannan Mohammedy, director of BUET's Institute of Energy and Sustainable Development.

Recent solar power expansion has focused on both rooftop solar photovoltaic systems and large-scale ground-based plants.

Rooftop solar is appealing as it does not require land acquisitions, said Munawar Moin, group director at Rahimafrooz Ltd, a pioneering solar-panel manufacturer in Bangladesh.

An earlier study estimated that 5,000 MW could be generated from solar plants on industrial rooftops.

Chowdhury noted there are now more than 30 large-scale rooftop solar PV plants, mostly mounted on factories.

Besides garment and textile manufacturing, other sectors like steel and electronics are also venturing into rooftop solar.

Rooftop solar PV plants are a great source of job creation, said Mohammedy, noting that Bangladesh has the fifth highest number of jobs in solar PV, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).

According to a 2020 IRENA report, there were 137,000 jobs in Bangladesh's solar sector, mostly concentrated in solar home systems including 10,000 jobs in solar-module assembly.

But obtaining finance to expand the business has been a key challenge, experts said, with bank officials often lacking the knowledge needed to assess solar projects.

To create manufacturing jobs in the supply chain, the government should set quotas so that a certain share of solar panels must be procured locally, added Moin.

Power pylons are seen in Bangladesh's national grid

A 50-megawatt solar park established by HDFC Sinpower Limited in Mymensingh provides power to the national grid, Bangladesh, August 13, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Md Tahmid Zami

A 50-megawatt solar park established by HDFC Sinpower Limited in Mymensingh provides power to the national grid, Bangladesh, August 13, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Md Tahmid Zami

Looking for land

Nestled between the scenic Brahmaputra River and farm fields in Mymensingh district, stands a 50-MW solar park set up by HDFC Sinpower Limited, a joint venture between Bangladeshi, Malaysian and Singaporean investors.

The plant, which has supplied power to the grid since last November, is one of eight large-scale solar plants operating in Bangladesh, which have combined capacity of about 230 MW.

Ibrahim Johny, 25, who works as a security guard at the Mymensingh solar park was unemployed before getting this job, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at the entrance.

Plant manager Ahsanul Muznebin said 42 local people are employed there as module cleaners, while another 14 work as security guards and 12 as operation and maintenance engineers.

But setting up a new solar park is difficult because Bangladesh has little available land, said BUET professor Khan.

A national land use policy from 2001 prohibits conversion of fertile agricultural land for other purposes.

Mymensingh solar park manager Muznebin told the Thomson Reuters Foundation it took almost two years to acquire the 174 acres needed for the plant, as farmland could not be used.

Chowdhury, who authored the draft solar roadmap, said sufficient land could be found for solar parks by reclaiming barren riverside areas and estuaries, while farmland could also be used for both agriculture and power generation.

He urged the government to take responsibility for organising land for large-scale solar parks and developing transmission infrastructure for solar power hubs.

It should also ease the stringent qualification criteria and approval process for ground-mounted solar farms, he added.

Alam, of the sustainable energy authority, said plummeting investment costs gave solar a bright future in Bangladesh and the government would support its development, including by setting a new target in a revised renewable energy policy due in 2023.

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