In the upscale Dhanmondi neighborhood of Bangladesh’s capital of Dhaka, power outages happen three times a day, each lasting 30 to 60 minutes, educational consultant Khadiza Afrin told the local Independent newspaper this spring. Her experience is common: Outages are a fact of life throughout this lush South Asian nation, interrupting schools, businesses and even, on occasion, the Bangladeshi parliament. More than an inconvenience, the overtaxed grid trims an estimated 3 percentage points from Bangladesh’s gross domestic product each year, affecting everything from quality of life to the ability to contribute further to Bangladesh’s economic growth.
But things are changing. The government plans to electrify the entire country and boost reliability and cost-effectiveness of the grid through its “Power to All” objective for 2021. GE is playing a prime role in this transformation. The company, in partnership with local entrepreneurs and Bangladeshi authorities, is adding 2 gigawatts of power a year, retrofitting some of the existing supply and even establishing import infrastructure for liquefied natural gas (LNG) to provide cheaper, cleaner fuel options.
It’s hard to understate the impact reliable, universal access to power would have on the country. “The whole aspect of mechanization, from better productivity, better lives for children, to cold storage facilities for farm produce — it’s a positive spiral. It is transforming lives,” says Deepesh Nanda, CEO of GE Gas Power Systems for South Asia.
The eighth most populous nation in the world with 166 million people, Bangladesh is adding the most energy capacity in terms of percentage growth, according to Nanda. Unexpected, to many outsiders, is the fact that Bangladesh is already one of the world’s great economic growth stories, posting annual GDP growth rates over 5 percent for 16 of this century’s 17 years. It’s self-sufficient in agriculture and neck and neck with China for the title of the world’s largest textiles exporter. While acknowledging its grid needs upgrading, it’s worth noting Bangladesh has already made tremendous strides: In 1990, just 8 percent of the country had electrical access, according to the World Bank. A better grid will keep progress expanding, says Nanda.
Electrifying any country isn’t a simple task, electrifying a state the size of Bangladesh is a titanic undertaking. The country, which borders India and Burma, has fewer natural resources to call on than its neighbors: Wind power isn’t feasible because of low seasonal wind speeds, expanding hydroelectric generation is unrealistic because available land is too flat, oil reserves are negligible, diesel plants are too expensive to run, and its natural gas reserves aren’t enough to meet its current demands. Novel experiments with biomass and solar power plants haven’t succeeded in boosting access in any meaningful way. In fact, when the Bangladeshi government made expanding the grid a priority late last decade, GE was the only major company to actively bid on work. “Probably a decade ago it was difficult for the companies to realize the true potential of the Bangladeshi power market because it doesn’t have five-star facilities, or it isn’t seen as glamorous,” Nanda says.
Glamorous or not, the effort is paying off for all involved. GE hired its first employee in Bangladesh in 2010 and today has more than 700 people in the country working on multiple projects both directly and indirectly. Thousands of locals are associated with the power projects as a result of all the work, from manual laborers to highly skilled power plant operators.
The effort also is laying a foundation for Bangladesh to keep expanding its grid. To solve the riddle of reliable fuel sources, GE formed a coalition with privately held Excelerate Energy and others to build a floating LNG import facility. Opening this year, the offshore Moheshkhali facility allows specialized tankers to deliver enough natural gas to meet one-fifth of the country’s daily demand. The floating storage regasification unit (FSRU) anchored at this site will supply the fuel to a new 600-megawatt combined-cycle power plant belonging to Summit Power, the largest independent power producers (IPP) in Bangladesh. GE, a long-standing partner to Summit Power, will be developing the plant and supply it with its latest-generation 9HA gas turbine.
The same technology will also work inside another 600-MW power plant, this one belonging to Unique Group, a Bangladeshi company. Another 10 turbines are in various stages of installation.
GE is also retrofitting existing power plants to boost efficiency. The Ghorashal power plant is Bangladesh’s largest and the first to undergo an upgrade. GE installed new gas turbines and added a heat-recovery steam generator to the system, utilizing heat energy previously wasted in the plant’s original design. The result essentially supercharges Ghorashal: Where it used just 25 percent of the gas’ power potential, it now uses 55 percent. In total, GE has 37 gas turbines in the country generating more than 2.2 gigawatts of energy, enough to supply power to 2.5 million homes.
Bangladesh has also been building out its electrical grid. As a result, benefits of these projects will soon start to reach many of the country’s 60 million people who live in the countryside and are not yet connected to the grid.
“We touch people’s lives,” Nanda says. “It’s not just day-to-day transaction business. There is a moral angle to the work that we do.”